The Agenda

Persuadable Switchers and the Tea Party Style

Remember that New York Times op-ed about the Tea Party movement we discussed a few weeks back? At the same time hostility to something called the Tea Party movement has grown, the authors find that voters had moved to the right on a number of economic questions:

The strange thing is that over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor. While none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans, the trends would seem to favor the Tea Party. So why are its negatives so high? 

This came to mind as I read a new Third Way memo on how Democrats can win back the “Switchers,” i.e., voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 yet voted for Republicans in 2010, which I found via Ben Smith:

Among these persuadable switchers, more than three-fifths feel they are more conservative than the President, and similar numbers say they are more conservative than Congressional Democrats.  

But … they are deeply skeptical of the Tea Party whom they view, by a 3-to-1 margin, as going too far in the wrong direction. The more the Tea Party is seen as synonymous with Republicans, the better chance Democrats have to widen the ideological distance between switchers and Republicans—and ultimately to win them back.

The memo describes the ideological views of persuadable switchers:

Persuadable switchers also equate deficit reduction with economic growth. When asked what Washington could do to create jobs, persuadable switchers chose “reducing the federal budget deficit” as their number one choice. And when asked directly about the link between deficit reduction and job creation, by a 46–41% margin persuadable switchers said deficit reduction would help create jobs and by a 64–27% margin that it would lead to economic growth.

They are also more open to tax increases:

Persuadable switchers are accepting of tax increases to reduce the deficit, but they harbor a distrust of Democrats on taxes. Persuadable switchers favored Democrats on which party was more reasonable on taxes—43–37%. But they also said the phrase “too willing to raise taxes” was among the two top attributes of the Democratic Party. And agreement with that characterization of Democrats was the third most highly correlated indicator that a person would think the party was too liberal. 

Still persuadable switchers are not ideologues when it comes to raising revenue in a deficit reduction context. Sixty-six percent strongly or moderately disagreed with the statement “we should not allow any increases in taxes even if it would help reduce the deficit.” By a 63–24% margin, persuadable switchers say “wealthy people should be taxed at a higher rate because we can’t solve the deficit problem without doing so.”

I wonder what might happen if Republicans framed opposition to tax increases in a somewhat different way — that is, what if they said that raising taxes was an absolute last resort and that we haven’t come anywhere close to doing what we can to make government truly cost-effective? This would involve saying, “I acknowledge that there might be circumstances in which we might have to raise taxes. But how can you justify spending x, y, and z when I have a plan that will .5(x, y, and z)? Why is raising taxes always your first resort rather than your last?”

Persuadable switchers are also inclined to see a limited role for the federal government in economic affairs:

Persuadable switchers see the private sector—not government intervention—as driving job creation and economic growth. When asked what they felt was the most helpful thing Washington could do to create jobs, the persuadable switchers’ first two choices were reducing the federal budget deficit and streamlining government regulations on businesses—and they chose both of those options above investment in innovation and infrastructure.  

Reading this makes me marvel at the fact that Republicans managed to lose a large number of these voters in 2008. 

The Social Security split between Romney and Perry is salient to the views of persuadable switches on entitlement reform:

On one level, persuadable switchers seem to be closer to where the President and his party are on entitlement reform—they don’t want big cuts to the programs, and they trust Democrats more to protect them. By 42-28%, persuadable switchers chose Democrats as more reasonable on reforming entitlements. And only 23% said Republicans “can be trusted to protect Medicare,” while 56% of persuadable switchers say the Tea Party is “going too far and jeopardizing important safety nets like Medicare and Social Security.”  But in contrast to many Democrats in Congress, a supermajority of persuadable switchers believes entitlements are in desperate financial shape and recognizes the need for serious reforms. … 71% say Social Security and Medicare have “serious financial problems that need to be addressed or the programs won’t be around for future generations.”

It seems that persuadable switchers want conservatives to demonstrate that they support the existence of a robust old-age safety net. 

The memo goes on to offer a strategy as to how “Growth Democrats” can attack “Tea Party Republicans.” It’s worth reading. This section includes a number of keen observations, e.g., 

Our polling shows that 63% of persuadable switchers are willing to see taxes increased on the wealthy. But they also ranked “too willing to raise taxes” as one of the most accurate descriptors of Democrats. When Democrats use the same old rationales for tax increases, what could sound like harmony sounds instead like fingernails on a chalkboard.  

To reach the switchers, progressive priorities—like raising taxes on higher earners—must be framed to appeal to centrist sensibilities. Centrists fear that Democrats want to raise taxes so they can spend more money on people who don’t deserve it, through programs that don’t work, at schools that don’t teach, for a government that doesn’t demand results.

The overall narrative Third Way wants to advance is this: 

Democrats want to reform government; Republicans want to end it. … The question voters must ponder as they consider pulling the lever for a Republican is “Do I really want to put the Tea Party in charge of the national economy? In charge of Social Security? In charge of teaching my kids about science?” 

Many of the Republican presidential candidates have been running on the basis of their Tea Party affect rather than the kind of substantive policy proposals that appeal to persuadable switchers. This doesn’t appear to be a wise strategy. Indeed, it seems to be playing into the hands of the strategists at Third Way. 

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