Voting Against the Fat Cats

Wall Street street sign
If you follow this blog even occasionally, you're probably familiar with the truism that people don't vote for things, they vote against things. Like all simple rules, it's probably not 100% correct 100% of the time, but it's true enough to help understand what would otherwise be confusing behavior on the part of the electorate. In fact, if you need some way to understand the way voters are behaving in this cycle, you really don't need to look any farther. People are voting against Democrats, not for Republicans; it's just that this is a two party system and voting against one requires casting your vote for the other.

For example, a new New York Times poll [pdf] shows that 51% disapprove of President Obama's performance on the economy and 55% would vote out (i.e., against) incumbents. And then it gets interesting.

[Greg Sargent, The Plum Line:]

But the internals show the public disapproves of the GOP even more (68 percent), overwhelmingly thinks the GOP lacks a clear plan to solve our problems (72 percent), and opposes GOP policies like extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich (53 percent).

This is why negative campaigning works. Because people vote against things. Republicans have spent most of Obama's first term giving voters reasons to vote against Democrats, while Democrats have been busy defending themselves. As a result, the debate has become "vote against Democrats" vs. "vote for Democrats" and human nature dictates that the pro-Dem argument -- no matter how valid -- is weaker by virtue of the consistently negative motivations of the average voter. People need to be given reasons to vote against Republicans, not to get excited about Democrats, especially since the data shows that a significant portion your work is already done for you.

For example, in another post, Sargent points to other internal findings of the poll and sees the following (emphasis his):

If the Republicans win control of Congress in November do you think they will try to return to the economic policies of George W. Bush or won't they try to return to the policies of George W. Bush?

Return to policies of George W. Bush 47

Won't return to George W. Bush policies 36

And a National Journal poll confirms: 45% think the GOP will return to Bush policies, while 33% disagree. "[M]y bet is that the shift is being driven by the debate over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, which has dominated the news in recent days," Sargent writes. "The unanimous Republican support for extending the Bush tax cuts, especially for the rich, may have focused public attention on the Dem argument that Republicans want nothing more than a return to Bush policies."

In other words, people are against extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and rightly see it as a return to Bush's failed policies. The magic word "against" is playing on the Democrats' team here. They really need to pass it the ball and let it score. The partisan pollster Democracy Corps agrees.

This will be a tough election, but fortunately, the unfolding tax issue can work strongly to help Democrats and define the choice in the election. This is a case where Democrats are strongly aligned with public thinking and priorities. Only 38 percent favor extending the Bush tax cuts for those over $250,000 -- the official position of Republican leaders and candidates. Clearly messaging around this choice -- with Democrats voting for middle class tax cuts, while starting to address the deficit and protecting Social Security, contrasted with Republican candidates who still believe trickle-down economics and worsening the deficit -- works for progressives.

"Contrasted" being the operative word here. "We're for this, they're for that. We all agree they're wrong. Vote against them."

"Democrats should embrace a tax debate," continues Democracy Corps' analysis. "Frankly, they do not have many issues where:

-There is a 17-point margin in favor of the Democratic position, 55 to 38 percent.

-The strong messages gives a disproportionate lift to the Democratic candidates -- scored 13 points better than named Democratic candidates while Republican messages performed half as well.

-There is an opportunity to show seriousness on the deficit, while undermining Republicans on the issue.

-The choice re-enforces Democrats' core values and strongest framework for the election (for the middle class versus Wall Street)."

Conclusion: "Progressives should welcome the debate over extending middle class tax cuts while letting taxes increase for the wealthy as Congress re-convenes. It reflects good policy during these tumultuous economic times, and could prove to be good politics for those facing an uphill battle this November."

Amen. "Vote against Republicans and Wall Street" is a message that may not turn this election cycle around, but would definitely apply the brakes to a runaway train. And, as I've pointed out before, if you can keep Republicans from taking the House, their base will be crushed -- they're operating on pure certainty right now. Anything short of that is a loss. A lot of them will get even crazier, but a lot of them will just walk away. The Tea Party movement, where the GOP is getting a lot of its momentum, is composed largely of previously uninvolved people. If you doubt that, consider how little they know. These are not people who've been keeping a close eye on the political scene for years. In fact, since most of them seem to believe that the TARP bailout was Obama's fault, we can assume they haven't even been watching very closely until a few months after Obama took office. If Republicans make strong gains in November, but still fail to control the House of Representatives, then they're probably done for a while. They'll go back to disliking all politicians and tuning it all out. Republicans would go into 2012 with the wind knocked out of them.

But, in order for this to happen, you need to give people something to vote against. Democrats are being handed that issue on a silver platter. People don't like Republicans, they don't like Wall Street, and they don't like extending Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. Tell them vote against it all.


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