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That Old-Time Populism Debate

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I have been in a running debate for a few years now with my old friends at Third Way. I have written a series of blog posts about different polls/strategic memos they have done over the years in terms of my disagreements with them, but I hadn't done it for a while because most of the stuff I have seen from them lately seemed more nuanced than usual. However, I am forced back into the fray with their latest memo denouncing economic populism as a message.

It is a brave attempt given how much the world has shifted since the last time they did this kind of memo. When Mitt Romney is denouncing Obama for wanting to end Medicare, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are denouncing Mitt for corporate greed at Bain Capital -- in a Republican primary, no less -- it is hard to see how populism isn't working as a messaging approach. And given that the entire Democratic Party including the Obama campaign -- in spite of their earlier deep reluctance and the president not being a natural populist -- is going for a strongly populist approach is further proof that most of the party's pollsters and message people are in the same place. But our friends at Third Way keep trying.

I'm not going to go through all the numbers on why a populist messaging approach works better right now. If you want to check out some of my past blog posts on the topic, you can do so here and here. If you want to go deep into data land, you can look at a series of polls from Democracy Corps which back the populism thing up quite well. But suffice to say that there is overwhelming data to suggest that broad majorities of voters, including swing voters, don't like Wall Street, love Social Security and Medicare (which Third Way has also argued should be cut), love taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes, deeply dislike big business lobbyists and special interests, are appalled by outsourcing, and all kinds of other populist topics.

You really have to stretch to find evidence to the contrary, so that is exactly what Third Way has done -- a rubberman type of stretch that is breathtaking in its creativity. The good news for Third Way is that you can write a poll to get results you want to get, and if your goal going into the poll is to find evidence that populism and going after Wall Street doesn't work, you can write the questions that kind of, sort of, almost make that happen.

Before walking you through what I do know about their poll from the memo, let me start with a couple of caveats. The first is that I don't dismiss everything about the Third Way's polling or analysis. I do think there are some important nuances, which I will discuss further later on, about how Democrats need to message to win key blocs of swing voters. Swing voters swing for a reason, and we have to be sensitive for what it will take to move them.

The second caveat is that there is a lot we don't know from the public data Third Way has released about this group of "swing independents" they have written their memo about. Without going far deeper into the crosstabs, I can't say for sure how they constructed this sample for the poll, or which independent voters made it in, or didn't make the cut. It was interesting to me that so few seniors relative to their voting population made the cut (only 12 percent compared to about 18 percent among likely voters) because they are a huge swing group in the 2012 election. I was also very surprised that voters who had graduated college were so heavily represented (42 percent compared to 31 percent among likely voters), which means that more working class voters are very under-represented among their swing independents. Again, that is fascinating, because (like seniors) those voters are much more likely to be swing voters than other voters in a range of other polling I have seen.

I have to admit that the under-representation of these two particular categories that are rated as heavily swing in other polling, seniors and blue collar voters, does increase my skepticism about this poll, mainly because these two demographic groups are among the most economically populist in the whole electorate. This reminds of the days when Mark Penn was working for President Clinton and would announce with great fanfare some new demographic that was primarily upper-income and business-oriented suburban voters that was supposedly the most important swing group in the electorate for that election, and then when other people would ask to look at his crosstabs, he would always refuse. Perhaps swing voting seniors and blue-collar voters are under-represented in the swing independents cohort because they are disproportionally registered as Democrats, who knows because one can't tell without looking at those crosstabs, but like I say it raises questions for me.

Here's what I do know, though: some of the questions in this poll were written with a specific conclusion the Third Way team wanted to find, some of the questions do not show what the authors of the memo claim, and the questions they chose not to ask were as important as the ones they did. Because they do tons of polls and the same kinds of questions over and over, pollsters have a very good idea in advance of writing their questions for any given poll what phrases or even individual words will trigger a more positive answer. Take the Third Way's poll question 42A, for example:

Which candidate would you be more likely to support?

One who says, "We need an economy based on opportunity -- where hard work is rewarded, the government lives within its means, and economic growth is our top priority. Because more opportunity means a stronger economy."

One who says, "We need an economy based on fairness -- where the rich pay their fair share, corporations play by the rules, and all Americans get a fair shot. Because a fairer economy is a stronger economy."

You notice on the opportunity side, it is stacked with phrases like "hard work is rewarded," "the government lives within its means," "economic growth?" Those kinds of phrases, especially in a time like ours with a stagnant economy, will always test very high, right through the roof. Experienced pollsters know that the word fairness tests fairly well, but that the phrases above will almost always beat it when voters are forced to choose. People right now are desperate for jobs and economic growth and will always choose that, if forced to make a choice, over the somewhat more theoretical idea of fairness. But it doesn't mean that most voters think you have to choose between the two, or that they don't value or respond to both. Note also that despite stacking the question that way, when people were forced to make an either/or choice between two things they supported, that the relatively weakly written fairness message still only lost by 51-43.

Here's another example: the Third Way memo says that the intensity of swing indies' anger at Congress "dwarfed their anger toward the rich or corporations," but they asked no questions that would have actually tested that statement. Even in this less populist slice of the electorate, voters worry about Wall Street bailouts and Congressional gridlock were almost identical, and that is in spite of the fact that a phrase like "Congressional gridlock" is something everyone can be angry about because it encompasses all things. I'm mad at gridlock because it means more Democratic proposals didn't get passed and more Democratic nominees didn't get confirmed. Republicans are mad at it because the Democrats wouldn't go along with cutting more spending. Independents are mad about it because it represents basic governmental dysfunction. It means something bad to everyone you poll, so of course it gets higher ratings than other specific things. It's sort of like asking people whether they think waste in government is a problem. Pretty much everyone will say yes. I happen to think most of the waste is in defense spending, contracting abuse, and subsidies for agribusiness, oil companies, and other big business, other people may feel like there is too much welfare or foreign aid, but everyone thinks there is some waste.

One final note on the memo before I conclude. Very strangely in my view, and with no real evidence to support this, the authors argue that Democrats shouldn't try to combine populism with a message about economic growth or opportunity. Their argument, based on one question about what voters expected Obama to say, is that if you combined the two, swing voters would never hear the part about opportunity. This is the biggest stretch in the whole memo. It is telling that their poll never actually tested the kind of populist economic growth message they declared so certainly would not work, but when pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, Mark Mellman, and Geoff Garin tend to test such messages, they amazingly do tend to work. Check this message that Democracy Corps tested, for example:

This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into it. We have to be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement. And we succeed when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules. So asking billionaires like Warren Buffett pay their fair share of taxes is not class warfare, it's just common sense.

Tested beautifully with independents, swing voters, and in general, and tested far better than some less populist messages they have tested over the last year-plus.

You do have to be thoughtful in your messaging to swing voters. A pure give'em hell eat-the-rich stem-winder of a message may not appeal to them without some nuance in it. Making fighting for small business, cutting government waste, and rewarding hard work part of the message always helps with in-the-middle voters. A focus on opportunity and economic growth helps as well. But to say that you have to avoid economic populism when talking about those things is something that only a true blue Third Wayer would ever say with a straight face. Taking on Wall Street and Wall Street bailouts never hurts and always helps in all the polling I have seen. Going after big oil, big insurance companies, corporate special interests, and big business CEOs who outsource jobs never turns off very many swing voters, and helps you with a whole lot of other folks.

Which brings me to my last, and perhaps most important, point: winning political messages can never work for just one slice of the electorate. Third Way may well have found that segment of swing independents who were less old, less blue collar, and less populist than any other group of voters in the potential Democratic electoral coalition. But your message has to appeal to all different kinds of folks. For a Democrat to win a national election, you need a message that inspires your volunteers and small contributors and fans who will talk to their neighbors about you; a message that generates enough excitement from blacks, Latinos, young people, and unmarried women to get them out to vote; a message that appeals to all those underwater homeowners and people without jobs that voted for Obama last time but may be leaning Republican or too discouraged to vote because of their own hard times; and a message that appeals to a wide array of different kinds of swing voters. If the message can't do all those things at once, it will not get you 51 percent. That's what makes economic populism so incredibly valuable: it is the message, if nuanced correctly per the paragraph above, which comes the closest to doing that. Even if I lost all my doubts about the Third Way analysis in terms of the small slice of the electorate they had identified, the message still wouldn't work strategically because it would fail with all those other voters we Democrats need to have to win.

A group like Third Way, with staffers who walk into their offices every day with a pre-determined mission of not wanting Democrats to be too economically populist, can easily design a sample and polling questions to reinforce the messages they want to work. But Democrats, especially Democratic incumbents, who are trying to win elections in times like these when the middle class is being squeezed so hard, need to be willing to take the populist torch and carry it proudly.

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