How Democrats Can Minimize Their Losses on November 2

How might Democrats minimize their losses on November 2?  Not by following the advice rendered by Sheri and Allan Rivlin, the authors of this Huffington Post article.

The Rivlins, echoing arguments that I find on many progressive websites, suggest that “something seems to be going terribly wrong with the Democratic message machine. To say we are off message is charitable, when a more accurate reading is that we are trying every message at once, which is another way of saying we are not committed to any message at all.”  To remedy this, they argue that Democrats should nationalize this election by framing it as a choice between the two parties’ economic plans.  In the Rivlins’ view, “The only thing voters should care about is who has the best plan to move forward, and our advantage is we have a plan and the Republicans don’t. The best evidence that we have a plan is all the statements by the other side that we have been doing too much. The best evidence that the Republicans don’t is their inability to point to any economic ideas that are new and different from Bush’s ideas.”

In my view, this is precisely the wrong approach for Democrats.  Fairly or not, the public – or at least that portion that is likely to vote in 10 days – perceives the Democrats as the party in charge at a time of stubbornly high 9% unemployment and sluggish economic growth.  Those facts are not going to change between now and November 2.  Simplistic or not, many voters view this election as either continuing on the current slow-growth path or trying something – anything – new.  Put another way, a good portion of the electorate – particularly the independents – that votes on Nov. 2 will frame this election as a referendum on the party in power – not a choice between competing economic plans. The Democrats aren’t going to lose the House because of bad messaging – they are going to lose it because of a bad economy, one that has not improved on their watch. As this recent survey indicates, most voters do not believe the economy is improving. Instead, “Americans are waiting for changes in the national and local employment statistics to signal that the downturn’s end is near.”  In the meantime they are increasing savings and cutting down on expenditures.

With this dismal economic context, what should Democrats do?  Incumbents – particularly those in the House – should do precisely the opposite of what the Rivlins suggest. That is, they should not do what Obama did in his recent radio address and try to frame this election as a choice between going forward under Democrat leadership or going back to the failed policies of Bush and the Republicans. A September Democrat poll conducted by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and James Carville supports my claim. It found that “Voters are not moved by Democratic messages that say ‘go forward, not back,’ mention President Bush, compare then and now, or even that hint the economy is “showing signs of progress.” No matter how dramatically these messages set out the record of Republican obstructionism, their work for the wealthiest and Goldman Sachs, the millions of jobs lost and Democrats’ support for jobs, small business and new industries – these messages falter before the Republican attack. The messages get lower scores and lose voters. After hearing this battle of Republican and Democratic messages, 8 percent shift their vote to support the Republican, while only 5 percent move to the Democrats. We lose ground. These messages are helping the Republicans.”

In short, Democratic candidates for Congress lose support when they try to frame this election as a choice between going back to the Bush-Republican policies or continuing with Obama’s.  Rather than nationalize this election,   during the next ten days Democrat incumbents should distance themselves from partisan policy debates and instead work assiduously to localize this election by reminding voters of everything they’ve done for their district: earmarks, casework – all the constituency services that contribute to the traditional advantages that accrue to incumbents in both parties. At the same time, they should distance themselves from the Democratic Party leadership, including President Obama. His most useful role is as a fundraiser in strongly blue districts and states.  But if you are a House Democrat running in a marginal district, you do not want the President at your side right now.

There is some evidence that Democratic leaders are beginning to grasp this. Two days ago Nancy Pelosi, appearing on Charlie Rose , suggested that this was an election that would turn on local issues: “This is not a national election; it is district by district,” she said.  Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on Meet the Press, agreed with Pelosi’s assertion by arguing that the midterm election would turn on local factors, not national ones.

Localizing House elections  at a time when midterms have become more nationalized  than at any time in the last half century is not going to be easy.  But at this point House Democrats don’t have much choice.


  1. Matt,

    Very insightful post. Thank you.

    Do you see any possibility that in 2012 Democrats can in fact craft a compelling message for Joe the Plumber? the discouraging takeaway from 2010 is that when politicians attempt to reason with Joe (“We told you so”), even in the midst of crisis, he yawns. As you point out, policy, causal attribution, and message content don’t much move him. What could Dems do in 2012 to restore some confidence in their approach?


  2. Martin – Great question. I confess that I haven’t looked far enough ahead at this point to give you an adequate answer. Some of it depends, I suspect, on the decisions the Republican-controlled House and Democratically-controlled Senate make during the next two years (was that a prediction?) Do they extend the Bush tax cuts? Probably yes. Repeal portions of the health care bill? Probably not. Reform entitlement programs? I’m doubtful. But the biggest factor, I suspect, is whether the economy begins to create jobs. If so, that will do more to help Obama reach Joe the Plumber than any specific policy. The real challenge for Obama, politically, will be how to deal with an opposition-controlled House. If he takes a page out of the Clinton playbook, he could move Right on some policies (entitlement reform, maybe? Extending Bush tax cuts) while wielding the veto to prevent Republicans from moving the country right in other areas (repealing health care).

  3. I’ve noticed more of a focus on local issues as well, but on the other hand Sestak had a very memorable ad in Pennsylvania comparing his unpopular votes in Congress to cleaning up after his dog – necessary to fix the mistakes of the Bush era. He even puts a picture of Bush up next to Toomey. Now his support seems to be surging and the race is statistically tied, which suggests that a national strategy might be more effective for Senate candidates.

  4. Zach – yes, I agree: Senate races tend to be more competitive and more likely to be driven by national issues. It’s harder for a Senate candidate to run on casework and constituency service, particularly in large states with a heterogeneous population. Lee and Oppenheimer make this point abundantly clear in their book “Sizing Up the Senate” which looks at the impact of state size on Senate races. They find that Senators in large states have a more difficult time conducting casework and exercising all those constituency services that help insulate House incumbents. That’s one reason why large-state Senate races are more competitive. In those instances, it may make sense to nationalize the race, as Sestak is doing in the hope of mobilizing the base. Of course, neither Sestak or Toomey is an incumbent Senator, but your argument still holds.

    Excellent point.

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