A Message That Actually Works -- Until It's Scrambled

In "A Message That Actually Works," Mike Lux laments efforts by Democrats to frame the upcoming election as a choice between going back to the Bush economic plan or moving forward with President Obama's. He used the poor performance of what he referred to as a "Third Way-style" message in a recent Democracy Corps poll as evidence that the approach is a dud. With all due respect to Mr. Lux, calling the polled message "Third Way-style" is like calling a soufflé an omelet because they both contain eggs. Even though there's a common ingredient, different combinations produce wildly different dishes. We think ours is the winning recipe.

In our poll, conducted with Benenson Strategy Group, we presented a choice between a candidate proposing to start from scratch with generic conservative policies versus one who would stick with President Obama, the candidate starting from scratch had a 34-point edge. When asked about whether those we polled would prefer a candidate who would stick with Obama or one who would return to the Bush economic policies, the pro-Obama candidate carried the day by 15 points, for a 49-point swing.

That hardly squared with the negative Democracy Corps result touted by Lux. So, what happened? The answer lies within the Democracy Corps question itself.

In addition to a reticence to bring back Bushonmics, our poll showed that Americans are looking for the private sector to lead the recovery. Of those polled, 55% said that large and small companies are the backbone of the economy, as opposed to only 37% who felt that large companies hurt the middle class and needed to be kept in check. And, while anxious about the current economic environment, they remain more concerned about getting ahead than falling behind. Two-thirds thought they'd be better off in five years than they are now, and only 18% were worried about having to collect unemployment over the next year. Based on these results, we recommended a clear three-point plan for progressives to win the economic debate by showing the linkage between conservative ideas and the Bush agenda, emphasizing a vision of private sector growth combined with fiscal discipline, and speaking to the aspirations of the middle class.

Taken together, these mutually reinforcing approaches form a strong and successful message. Democracy Corps, which does excellent polling and partners with us on other projects, took a decidedly different approach (one that I'm sure it would not describe as "Third Way-style"). For example:

"The Republicans in Washington want to go back to the Bush policies that crushed the middle class. My priority is to cut middle class taxes and for small businesses to create jobs. Extend unemployment benefits and health insurance for the unemployed. Support new industries that create jobs and end tax breaks for exporting jobs. And the economy shows signs of improving. But the Republicans have different priorities. They want to give another $300,000 a year tax break to the very wealthiest and $5 billion in tax breaks to AIG and Goldman Sachs. We must go forward for the middle class, not back to old policies for Wall Street that cost 8 million jobs." (emphasis added)

No wonder the numbers on this messaged tanked. The reference to an improved economy misses the mark by claiming accomplishment, which is far from our recommendation to acknowledge anxieties but share a vision for future growth. A "crushed" middle class and focus on unemployment benefits? That hardly sounds like the clear-eyed but resolutely aspirational Americans in our poll. The choice between forward and back aside, overall the message is pessimistic, substitutes government action for private initiative, and is almost devoid of reference to a plan for a better future. The similarities between what we recommend and what was polled begin and end at references the Bush economic policies. Far from being something we'd recommend, it's actually a better example of what not to do.

As Third Way, we are pretty sure that we can recognize a Third Way-style message. The message in question, is not.