While we are months away from the 2012 elections, some things are already clear. First, the White House and Congress are in play for both parties. Second, barring any large national security event, the biggest issues in the upcoming election will be jobs and the economy. Third, it is increasingly evident that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president.
Assuming Romney is the nominee, his campaign message against President Obama is obvious: He is the only candidate with private sector experience and the know-how to create jobs and improve the economy. To win this election, President Obama will ultimately have to show that his policies are improving the economy by spurring job growth in the private sector. In other words, President Obama needs to undercut Romney's ability to claim the high ground on job creation.
If past is prologue, one of Romney's attacks on the president is going to involve accusations of supporting "job killing regulations." But what exactly are Republicans talking about when they make such accusations against Democrats? Aside from the usual dose of hyperbole associated with any political campaign, I believe that some of that criticism is grounded in some truth. Granted, the majority of American people are not in support of a free-for-all world with no regulations, but we as a party far too often put ourselves outside of where most voters are on these issues and allow the other side to exploit this weakness.
We know from our post-election research into "Droppers" and "Switchers" (Obama voters who either stayed home or left the party in 2010) that while a majority of these cohorts feel that "big business" takes advantage of the middle class in order to make a profit, a majority of these voters do not want government to increase regulation on businesses. These voters are much more "Cautious Capitalists" than "Progressive Warriors." As another example, let's look at the issue of chemical and product safety. While this is not a top-of-mind issue for many voters, it is an example of the type of issue that can easily be used in upcoming campaigns across the country. If we are going to generalize the argument, on the one side you have environmental groups and other organizations, typically associated with the Democratic Party, pushing for a ban on certain chemicals or products based on a belief of harm. On the other side you have the companies, typically associated with the Republican Party, arguing that they are unable to run their business if what brings on a ban is a belief of harm versus scientific evidence of harm. Regardless of what the two sides say, the interesting question becomes: What do the American people believe?
In a recent national survey of 1,000 likely voters, we looked at the views voters hold when it comes to potential regulations by federal agencies -- such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on chemicals and product safety. We asked likely voters whether chemicals or products should be banned based on a belief of harm (known in Europe as the Precautionary Principle), or on current scientific evidence; a full two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) said science should inform regulatory decisions in this country compared to just 23 percent who feel that products should be banned if they might be harmful.
Additionally, Democrats and the White House should note that 71 percent of voters think it is important that potential job losses and economic impact are taken into consideration before chemicals or products are banned without scientific evidence of harm. This includes 75 percent of the voters who believe that the Precautionary Principle should be used, 68 percent of Independent voters, 79 percent of Democratic voters, and 71 percent of voters who are unsure whether they will support the President or the Republican nominee in November.
As concerned people and organizations have sought to more frequently interject themselves into the regulatory process, the result is that the process has become dominated by lawyers and politicians. This might be good for the bottom line at a few large law firms and equate to additional face time on a news show for some politicians, but 70 percent of respondents in our poll told us they most trust scientists to determine the safety of a chemical or product compared, with only 2 percent trusting lawyers to make such a determination and even fewer (1 percent) trusting politicians with the job.
As a pollster, my job is to interpret the answers people give us and advise my clients on winning policies and strategies. President Obama and Democrats need Americans to believe they are serious about jobs, and being viewed as anti-business or ceding regulatory ground to the environmental movement will allow for more and more examples that Republicans can point to over the next 10 months. Understanding the landscape we are in and the beliefs and values people hold will be the difference between success and failure in November.