05/03/2012 02:19 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

The Winner of the Opportunity vs. Fairness Debate Is...

We happened upon a debate between the influential centrist group the Third Way and Huffington Post featured blogger Mike Lux. Uninvited, we are inserting ourselves as referees because this really is a case where both sides are right, and the Democratic message-meisters would benefit greatly from incorporating the insights coming from both perspectives. The message that comes out of the synthesis of these two points of view is the strongest Democratic economic message in 2012.

Third Way takes on the question of which is a more effective frame for the Democrats' economic message in 2012: a fairness framework or an opportunity framework? Their survey of independent voters in 12 swing states, with particular emphasis on a narrower swath of swing independents (defined as independents that are neither strongly favorable nor strongly unfavorable to either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney) concludes that the opportunity frame wins hands down.

Opportunity trumps fairness with Swing Independents. Swing Independents clearly preferred an economic opportunity frame when it was pitted against other messages, including those about fairness. For example, when asked which candidate they'd be more likely to support, 80% chose a candidate "focusing on economic growth and opportunity" while only 15% picked one "focusing on income inequality." Even when the question was asked in a way that made clear the second candidate wanted to reduce income inequality specifically "to help the middle class," 76% chose opportunity.

Mike Lux raises a lot of legitimate issues with this conclusion and the survey it is based on. He is right to ask about the composition of the group of swing independents -- pointing out that they are better educated and younger than the electorate. This is important when other polling finds the appeal of populist arguments like the income inequality frame tends to be greater among older and less well educated voters.

Lux is also right to point out possible bias in the question wording that may have assisted the opportunity frame. He quotes the survey wording:

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." or

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."

And points out:

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. ...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...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.

So who is right? Is Third Way right that opportunity is a stronger argument than fairness or is Mike Lux correct that the conclusion is based on a biased question being asked of an overly narrow portion of the electorate? To referee the question we turn to another recent poll done for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart (who is Allan Rivlin's Partner at Hart Research Associates) and Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

This bi-partisan pairing is not known for having a position in the struggle between liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats, and the nationwide survey goes to all voters rather than just independents in swing states.

After Further Review, the Winner is...
Both sides are right here. The Third Way is right to assert that opportunity for the middle class is a far more popular frame than a pure focus on fairness and the widening income gap. The point of drawing attention to the income gap is not to say we need to make the rich poorer, it is to say we need to create opportunity for middle class families to make real wage gains that have eluded them for decades despite gains in worker productivity (chart). A message that focuses only on the income gap and not at all on increasing opportunity for the middle class performs the least well of 6 messages tested (Question 29, page 19).

Just 23 percent say they would be much more likely to support a candidate who says "what drags down our entire economy is an ever-widening gap between the ultra rich and everybody else. An additional 22 percent say they would be somewhat more likely; but 29 percent say they would be less likely to support this version of the economic fairness message.

But Lux is right to criticize Third Way for asserting this is an either/or proposition rather than both/and. The strongest candidate message in the NBC Survey manages to link fairness and opportunity.

A 76 percent majority of voters would be more likely (46 percent much more likely) to support a candidate who "will fight for balance and fairness and encourage the investments needed to grow the economy and strengthen the middle class." Only 7 percent say they would be less likely to support this candidate.

It should also be noted this message tests far stronger than the best-testing Romney-tinged message: "a candidate who "wants to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity and small government" which gets 64 percent saying they would be more likely to support (37 percent much more likely) and 15 percent less likely.

The CenteredPolitics view is that Democrats are strongest when moderates work to distill effective moderate messages and liberals work to distill effective liberal messages, and both sides work to find the strongest synthesis that unites the wings of the party. This is additive. We are weakest when the wings make efforts to delegitimize the views of the other wing.

Lux is absolutely correct in criticizing Third Way's assertion that Democrats must choose between the two frames -- and therefore drop the fairness argument from their repertoire. Third Way says this directly but unconvincingly:

Some argue that it is possible to make a populist fairness argument while simultaneously using an opportunity message. But our poll data proves that for Swing Independents, that mixed message doesn't work.

The poll data make no such proof and Lux is right to point out this is the weakest argument in their report.

The important take away here is that this is a false choice. The NBC News /Wall Street Journal survey makes it clear that the strongest Democratic message links fairness, and middle class opportunity. The middle class is feeling squeezed by stagnant wages and rising costs for education and health care. We need every American sharing the load to respond to our national challenge to re-invest in our economy and our workforce, rebuild middle class security, and reclaim future economic prosperity.