The centrist Democratic group Third Way has a new report out about “Swing Independents,” who they claim are the Soccer Moms/Reagan Democrats/Rockefeller Republicans of 2012. (I prefer to think of them as the fickle souls who can’t make up their minds.)
These Swing Independents, according to Third Way, make up 15 percent of the electorate and currently favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 44 percent to 38 percent. But despite their soft pro-Obama leanings, Third Way argues that Obama’s populist message of economic fairness is turning these voters off. Swing Independents care about “opportunity,” not fairness, prioritize cutting the deficit over reducing income inequality, don’t believe the US economy is skewed to favor the wealthy and “consider themselves to be haves, not part of the have nots,” according to the report. In other words, Obama should cozy up to the banks (as if he hadn’t already), stop campaigning on the “Buffet rule” and make the Bowles-Simpson debt plan the centerpiece of his presidency. (The presidency already tried that strategy for much of 2011, and it didn’t work.)
It’s hard to know who is more out of touch—Third Way or the “Swing Independents” they claim to speak for. At the very moment that prominent Republicans are admitting that Obama’s focus on income inequality has put the GOP on the defensive, Third Way wants the president and Democratic candidates to drop the issue. That would be political suicide, not to mention terrible public policy.
This week a new ABC News/Washington Post poll asked voters: “what do you think is the bigger problem in this country—unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?” Fifty-two percent answered “unfairness,” while only “37 percent” mentioned “over-regulation.” A December 2011 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the US economic system “favors the wealthy,” with 36 percent saying it was “generally fair.” In a November 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 61 percent of the public said the federal government should “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans,” with 35 percent saying it should not. So much for the canard that income inequality is an issue the public doesn’t care about.
Following the president’s State of the Union address in February, the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner tested a “middle class opportunity” message versus a “‘fair shot’ for the middle class” message on voters. “The two messages produced similar overall results,” GQR found, refuting Third Way’s findings. The middle-class opportunity/economy meme “was the strongest message among independents,” GQR found, while the economic fairness theme “performed best in Congressional districts won by President Obama in 2008 and by a Republican in 2010 and among white seniors.” Pitting opportunity against fairness is a false choice. It makes no sense to discard a populist message that is clearly resonating among a majority of the electorate.