Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It Wasn't a Messaging Problem

I spoke to a group of St. Mary's College alums tonight about the 2010 midterms. I said the same things that I've been saying for two weeks - I called it the Myths of 2010 talk: 

Myth One - Democrats didn't turn-out. This is not true. Compared to the last midterm election in 2006 Democratic turnout was essentially the same, as was Republican turnout. Democrats lost because Independents shifted their support to Republicans by nearly 36 points compared to 2006. Too many folks are comparing 2010 turnout to that of the 2008 Presidential election - but this is a poor comparison. Turnout in midterm elections never rivals Presidential turnout. The 2006 to 2010 comparison is more appropriate.

Myth Two - Democrats were overwhelmed by outside spending. The Citizen's United ruling allows corporations to engage in political spending and this certainly provided cash to Republicans, but the simple truth is all that outside spending merely brought Republicans to spending parity with Democrats. Certainly Republicans had more money than in past midterms, but Democrats were not "overwhelmed."

Myth Three - It was the return of the "Angry White Male." Republicans made gains among most demographic groups, but their victory was actually fueled by an historic victory among women.  For the first time since exit polling of midterms began in the early 1980s Republicans won a majority of women's votes, they also improved their standing among Hispanics, older voters, and gay and lesbian voters.
Myth Four - The losses were normal for a midterm. Most models for midterm elections projected Democratic losses of 30 to 50 seats with the typical range in the high 30s. As Nate Silver at recently noted, the loss of 60+ seats exceeded the normal and it appears that support for health reform, cap and trade, and the stimulus bill hurt Democrats.

Myth Five - Democrats were too timid (This is the one that got me in trouble). The myth is that Democrats lost because they failed to be bold, they compromised too much, they did not defend or explain what they accomplished.  This is just wrong, Democrats were bold, but the voters rejected what they accomplished. It was not about messaging, voters simply did not like what Democrats did.

On myth five I was asked, "how can it be that it was not a messaging problem when exit polls show that people supported health care reform?" To which I replied, no poll showed that. The response? "Yes, exit polls showed that people liked parts of the bill." And there you have it... there is a crucial difference between liking parts of a bill and supporting the entire bill.  A recent Kaiser poll demonstrates this: 
"...almost half of Americans want Washington lawmakers to repeal all or parts of the health care reform law. However, when asked about specifics, most want to keep key provisions. Over 70 percent want to keep the parts that provide tax credits to small businesses and financial help to Americans who don't get insurance through their jobs. A majority also want to keep provisions that close the Medicare doughnut hole and prohibit denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions. The requirement for all Americans to have health insurance or risk paying a fine is the lightning rod of health care reform. Sixty-eight percent of Americans want this provision repealed."
So people like some of it, but dislike other parts - it's possible to support repeal of a bill that contains elements that you like. I offer an illustration, Democrats support extension of the Bush tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000 a year, but oppose extending them for those earning more - if a Republican House passes an extension for everyone, Democrats will still support the part of the bill that benefits those earning $250,000 or less, but likely oppose the bill.
I understand the desire to blame the 2010 results on messaging - after all, who wants to accept that their policy preferences were just rejected by a majority of Americans? Also, a messaging problem means tweaking a communications strategy - the alternative explanation, that voters got the message but rejected the policy, means either altering your policy agenda or suffering more defeats at the hands of voters.It may be tough to accept, but Democrats did not lose because of their messaging, they lost because of their policies.