The 2010 election campaign could not be more daunting, but we believe Democratic congressional candidates can move these races in the final two months if they frame this election as a clear choice and battle for the middle class, against the big financial interests dominating Washington and which Republicans champion. This is a moment to refocus. With the unemployment rate going up, voters deeply frustrated and desperate, and Democrats down 7 points in the congressional vote, we need and can adopt a new formula. Our research demonstrates that Democratic messaging can beat powerful Republican messages, moving voters and closing the congressional gap by an impressive 9 points.
Democracy Corps recently concluded a large-scale web-panel experiment and follow-up focus groups to examine tax messages best suited for this election environment. We found that even in the face of powerful Republican messages on debt, spending, government takeover and a failed economic recovery program, the right framework really moves voters to the Democrats, particularly the new Democratic base of young people, unmarried women, and minorities, but also the more independent and conservative white working class.
It becomes apparent from this experiment and the focus groups that to get the full power of this framework, you also need to get some other things right.
- You must first communicate a commitment to change Washington — within this same framework. The Democratic candidate regrets the influence of the lobbyists and fights for ending oil company tax breaks, big corporate subsidies, self-regulation and unlimited corporate campaign money. Candidates have to be reformers — focused on helping the middle class and reining in corporate power. Hearing the candidate’s determination to change Washington first increases the impact of the middle class versus Wall Street message.
- This message weakens when combined with attacks on Republicans for spending cuts bad for the middle class. We tested another set of messages that included the identical language of the "battling for the middle class, against Wall Street" message, but combined with attacks on the Republicans for supporting the Paul Ryan budget with its Medicare and Social Security cuts. While the message scores just as high, it does not effect voters in the same dramatic way. The Democrats’ net gain on the congressional vote is only 2 points, compared to 9 points for the "change Washington, pro-middle class, against Wall Street frame." Raising spending issues complicates the story.
- Being authentically for the middle class is the key to bringing voters back. Voters think most Democratic members of Congress have "gone Washington," backed bailouts, forgotten their promises, and cashed in. But when asked to write down one thing they want the Democratic candidate to know, most of the focus group participants wrote something about the middle class: "We need to know the facts as to how you will help the middle class — STOP — the corporate spending — walk in our shoes"; "Emphasize that you are for the middle class."
The web poll was conducted September 1-2, 2010 among 850 individuals who fall into the following demographic groups: the "Rising American Electorate," which consists of youth, unmarried women, and minorities; and white non-college educated respondents. The two focus groups were conducted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 7, 2010 with white women aged 45-60 without a college degree and white men age 30-45 with a college degree. All participants were independents, weak Democrats, or weak Republicans.