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Lux: Dems Need Nuanced Populism in Messaging

Mike Lux's HuffPo post, "That Old-Time Populism Debate " provides a smart analysis of the recent Third Way study "Opportunity Trumps Fairness with Swing Independents." Lux faults Third Way for what he considers some pretty extravagant claims in "their latest memo denouncing economic populism as a message." As Lux frames his concerns about the survey:

When Mitt Romney is denouncing Obama for wanting to end Medicare, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are denouncing Mitt for corporate greed at Bain Capital -- in a Republican primary, no less -- it is hard to see how populism isn't working as a messaging approach. And given that the entire Democratic Party including the Obama campaign -- in spite of their earlier deep reluctance and the president not being a natural populist -- is going for a strongly populist approach is further proof that most of the party's pollsters and message people are in the same place...Suffice to say that there is overwhelming data to suggest that broad majorities of voters, including swing voters, don't like Wall Street, love Social Security and Medicare (which Third Way has also argued should be cut), love taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes, deeply dislike big business lobbyists and special interests, are appalled by outsourcing, and all kinds of other populist topics.

Lux comes down hard on the study, citing Third Way for "a rubberman type of stretch that is breathtaking in its creativity." He notes that seniors and working-class voters are underrepresented and the survey sample, while college grads are overrepresented. he feels further that the survey questions were slanted to elicit responses and sees a failure to test "the kind of populist economic growth message they declared so certainly would not work."

Lux concedes that Dems need a more thoughtful message for swing voters than has too often been the case -- "A pure give'em hell eat-the-rich stem-winder of a message may not appeal to them without some nuance in it.' But, he adds:

...Winning political messages can never work for just one slice of the electorate. Third Way may well have found that segment of swing independents who were less old, less blue collar, and less populist than any other group of voters in the potential Democratic electoral coalition. But your message has to appeal to all different kinds of folks. For a Democrat to win a national election, you need a message that inspires your volunteers and small contributors and fans who will talk to their neighbors about you; a message that generates enough excitement from blacks, Latinos, young people, and unmarried women to get them out to vote; a message that appeals to all those underwater homeowners and people without jobs that voted for Obama last time but may be leaning Republican or too discouraged to vote because of their own hard times; and a message that appeals to a wide array of different kinds of swing voters. If the message can't do all those things at once, it will not get you 51 percent. That's what makes economic populism so incredibly valuable: it is the message, if nuanced correctly per the paragraph above, which comes the closest to doing that. Even if I lost all my doubts about the Third Way analysis in terms of the small slice of the electorate they had identified, the message still wouldn't work strategically because it would fail with all those other voters we Democrats need to have to win.

Any strategy that ignores the broadly-held populist sentiments unearthed by the Occupy Movement is courting a disaster. As Lux concludes, "Democrats, especially Democratic incumbents, who are trying to win elections in times like these when the middle class is being squeezed so hard, need to be willing to take the populist torch and carry it proudly."