Despite acting boldly to address the economic crash, the voters lost confidence in the Democrats on the economy in the years since the heady days of the 2008 presidential election -- and that is mostly still true. That loss of confidence is the principal reason why Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 and why the election for President and the Congress in 2012 could be competitive.

This wave of research shows a path for Democrats to gain the ascendancy on the economy.

No incumbent President since Roosevelt has won reelection with greater than 8 percent unemployment. Current Democratic narratives too often fail to meet voters where they are in how they perceive and experience the economy and, even more importantly, do not speak to voters’ aspirations and goals when thinking about the economic future. They do not take the voters economic understanding seriously when indeed, they are dead serious.

In the first two years of Democratic governance, the Democrats have offered a jumble of messages, without a consistent framework that explains why and what Democrats are doing. The White House metaphor of getting the car out of the ditch on to level ground and not giving the car back to the guys who drove it into the ditch was unconvincing, too light-hearted, backward-looking and out-of-touch. People thought they were still in the ditch. 

The Democrats’ messaging and fate have been tethered to the recovery - hoping that once the recovery really kicked in, voters would make a judgment about the success of Democratic governance. To be honest, both Democrats and Republicans leaders believe that - and so did I before this project.

This report shows that Democrats can win in 2012 if they focus on the new tough economic realities, offer a way to a better future, and show how different the choices are that progressives and conservatives will make. Paradoxically, Democrats must forget the past and the financial crisis. That is counter-intuitive and painful because conservative policies were so destructive and Democrats did right and brave things. Voters understand this more than you appreciate, but that is at least three years ago now, and voters think a focus on that misses the country’s urgent current reality. 

‘The economy’ is not the recovery, but a set of powerful on-going realities: a middle class smashed and struggling, American jobs being lost, the country and people in debt, and the nexus of big money and power that leaves common people excluded. 

If Democrats get it and embrace that reality as their mission, there is potential for immense dividends. As we will see, voters are desperate for leaders who understand the scope of what is happening to them, the middle class and America. They want serious plans, not triumphalism about jobs reports. 

Of course, three quarters of 3.5 percent growth, falling unemployment and rising incomes will produce great relief in the country. If so, go for it. Any economic narrative will stick. 

And regardless of economic developments, Democrats will make some gains with parts of their broad new base - young voters, African Americans and Hispanics, large metropolitan areas - where about half of the voters already see a recovering economy and where there is more confidence in Obama himself. But for broad swaths of the electorate - from white non-college voters and women (married and unmarried), to suburbanites and Midwesterners, this economy is tough going and Obama and Democrats do not get a pass. But nor do the Republicans, and they are already living with the same new rules.

Key Findings

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National survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Democracy Corps and Women’s Voices, Women Vote: 1481 likely 2012 voters (1000 weighted) May 21-25, 2011. Unless otherwise noted, margin of error= +/- 2.5 percentage points at 95% confidence.

Sources: Stanley Greenberg, David Walker, and Erica Seifert

Client: Democracy Corps and Women's Voices. Women Vote