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It’s the (Message About the) Economy, Stupid

I’ve documented extensively the level of economic discontent among the public in recent posts. Two new polls, one by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies for NPR and the other by Lake Snell Perry Mermin (LSPM), confirm that discontent. The LSPM poll finds, for example, that 56 percent think the country’s economy is seriously off on the wrong track, compared to just 38 percent who think that it’s going in the right direction, and that two-thirds of voters believe Bush is doing either a “just fair” or poor job on the economy. And in the NPR poll, voters were read a series of positive and a series of negative facts about the economy–eight in each series–and asked which best described the economy. After this exercise , voters were asked whether the positive or negative series of facts tells the best story about the economy in general. By 53-39, they thought the negative series of facts told the better story.

Will that discontent pay off for the Democrats in 2006? That is far from certain, though it certainly gives them good raw material to work with. First, the reasons why the discontent might pay off.

1. Dissatisfaction with the performance of the economy typically hurts the incumbent party and Republicans are unamiguously the incumbent party. Moreover, right now, general anti-incumbent sentiments are running high. For example, in the recent NBC News poll, 47 percent said it's time to give a new person a chance", compared to 39 percent who said their representative "deserves to be re-elected". That 8 point deficit against the incumbent is the highest it's been since before the 1994 election. Also in the NBC News poll, Congress, which is completely controlled by the GOP, is running an abysmal 28 percent approval rating.

Finally, public polls in July show Democrats with a 5-7 point lead in prospective questions on the 2006 elections, indicating that anti-incumbent feelings may be developing a partisan edge. (Note, however, that Democrats' favorability ratings are still no better the the Republicans' and frequently slightly worse.)

2. In the LSPM poll, Democrats are preferred on a wide range of economic issues, many by hefty margins. These include: fighting for the middle and working middle class (+31); budget deficits (+20); dealing with rising health care costs(+17); keeping jobs in America (+16); retirement security (+15); dealing with rising gas prices (+12); creating jobs (+10); creating economic security for families like yours (+7); fiscal accountability (+7); for small businesses (+6); and providing economic opportunities (+5).

But there are also reasons why economic discontent might not pay off for the Democrats.

1. Voters are dissatisfied with the economy, but they're hardly ready to storm the barricades. Both the NPR and LSPM polls note that people rate their own economic situation substantially more positively than they rate the country's. While there is a long-standing polling phenomenom of individuals rating their own situation (and not just economic, but everything from their kids' schools to their values) more positively than that of the country as a whole, the fact that voters are not inclined to rate their own personal economic situation as particularly dire should reduce one's faith that a sour view of the country's economic performance will necessarily propel voters toward the Democrats.

2. When you look carefully at the list of economic issues Democrats hold an advantage on, it is striking that they hold a huge advantage on a which-side-are-you-on item like "fighting for the middle class", but rather modest advantages on two items that should be at the heart of what Democrats really stand for: creating economic security for families like yours [note the "families like yours" language](+7); and providing economic opportunities (+5). And on another item that traditionally has shown itself to be an especially good predictor of vote choice--"keeping America prosperous"--Democrats are actually running a small deficit (-3).

This suggests that Democrats have yet to convince the average voter--even if that voter is dissatisfied with the economy and where it seems to be going--that their party has a clear and clearly superiour approach to providing economic security and opportunity and ensuring prosperity. That may limit, in turn, Democrats' ability to capitalize on economic discontent in the next election and beyond.

How can the Democrats rectify this situation? Not, in my view, by embracing fashionable theories like "framing" which inevitably encourage the party to recycle its old proposals and ideas dressed-up in different language. As Matt Bai noted in his very interesting piece on the Democrats and framing in the New York Times magazine, Democrats tend to interpret academic George Lakoff's framing theory in exactly this way:

When I asked Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip and one of Lakoff's strongest supporters, whether Lakoff had talked to the caucus about [a] void of new ideas in the party, Durbin didn't hesitate. ''He doesn't ask us to change our views or change our philosophy,'' Durbin said. ''He tells us that we have to recommunicate.'' In fact, Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff's work, that the Republicans have triumphed ''by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,'' the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language.

And there are good reasons why Democrats interpret his theory that way:

...Lakoff had spoken for 12 minutes and then answered questions at [a] U.C.L.A. forum with [Arianna] Huffington and [Tom] Frank, and not once had he even implied that the Democratic problem hadn't been entirely caused by Republicans or that it couldn't be entirely fixed by language.

This is really too bad, because it diverts Democrats' attention from the fact that even good political language has to connect to arguments that are clear and compelling and plans whose real world implications voters can easily grasp. For example, in the LPSM poll, the political language (or "narrative") that tested the best, beating a Republican "ownership society" narrative, 53-37, was an "economic security" narrative that alluded to ways in which Democrats would act to make Americans more economically secure and ensure properity.

That seems like a promising approach, especially since Democrats apparently need to beef up their appeals in the economic security and prosperity areas. But, unfortunately for the Democrats, voters don't vote just on narratives--they vote on what a party stands for and what it proposes to do. And right now, voters are fairly mystified about what the Democrats stand for and what they propose to do with the country if they attain power--including in the area of economic security. That returns us to the land of core beliefs, solid arguments and good ideas, where Democrats, if they wish to win in 2006 and beyond, should be concentrating their efforts. There is no substitute.