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Analysis: Time for Benefits for the Middle Class, Not Premature Credit for a Turnaround
Tuesday, November 03 2009

Tags: battleground | democracy corps | economy | house | incumbents | middle class | obama | stimulus

With GDP growth having finally returned, but unemployment still rising slowly toward 10 percent, the economy is at a sensitive juncture as an issue for the 2010 elections.  Almost half of voters in the 60 most competitive Democratic and Republican congressional districts now rate their personal finances positively and half believe the economic recovery plan passed by Congress and signed by the president will have a positive impact. Yet, only 16 percent have a positive view of the current economy and only a third think the economy is “starting” to improve.  Independents are particularly pessimistic on economic issues, with important consequences for the midterm elections.

That half in these swing (but Republican-leaning) districts believe that President Obama’s economic recovery plan could help suggests the economy could break in favor of Democrats, but the country is not ready to listen to a narrative about how Democrats have brought the economy “back from the brink” and averted an even worse disaster, as articulated by the president in his joint session address to Congress earlier this year.  That leaves a lot of receptivity to Republican messages that focus on wasted spending and exploding deficits.  On the other hand, focusing on the specific benefits in the stimulus package that have helped working Americans through the crisis and on rebalancing the economy so it works for the middle class (not just the wealthy) has a much bigger impact and effectively challenges the Republican narrative.
 
These results are based on a new survey by Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research across the 60 most marginal congressional districts (40 Democratic-controlled and 20 Republican-held).[1]
 
The Dangers of Taking Premature Credit for Economic Turnaround
 
With the specter of a second Great Depression behind us, our economy growing again, the Dow having briefly cracked 10,000 and some TARP recipients repaying their loans, some Democrats have begun tentatively taking credit for the beginning of an economic turnaround.  While voters think that could eventually be true, they are far from entertaining the idea that the economy is fundamentally improving, at least in any way that they can feel.  They may well punish politicians who get ahead of themselves, look out of touch and, more important, fail to talk about the on-going help from the recovery package that counters the Republican interpretation about spending.
 
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Almost half of voters across this battleground have a positive feeling about their own personal finances (48 percent, against just 27 percent who have a negative feeling).  And nearly half (46 percent) say that Obama’s economic recovery plan has or will have a positive impact on the economy. This is not a bad result in this Republican-leaning battleground, considering that unemployment is approaching 10 percent.
 

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However, voters clearly do not think that the economy has yet turned the corner.  Nearly 7-in-10 rate the “state of the economy” unfavorably, with 43 percent holding a very unfavorable view.  Moreover, just a third, or so, of voters in the battleground believe the economy has already turned a corner and is “starting to improve.”
 
Independents are, of course, a key battleground for 2010, and their feelings regarding the economy could be problematic for Democrats.  Interestingly, feelings about one’s personal finances are not correlated with partisan identification, but feelings about the state of the economy are strongly correlated, with Democrats much more optimistic.  Half of Democrats say the economy is “starting to improve,” but only a quarter of independents and a fifth of Republicans agree.
 
 
While 56 percent in the congressional battleground still say that President Obama and the Democrats are “mainly dealing with problems inherited” from Bush (and only 38 percent, “problems of their own creation”), a lot of concern and skepticism remain about the risks of the current course.  These voters are split (46 to 49 percent) on whether Obama’s policies have helped avert a worse crisis and laid the foundation for an economic recovery, or whether they have simply run up the deficit while failing to slow job losses. And more troublesome for Democrats, only about a third of independents in the Democratic-held districts say that Obama’s policies have helped avert a crisis while laying a foundation for recovery.
 
Top Messages Center on Benefits for Middle Class
Considering these results, it is not surprising that a message taking credit for “bold and decisive action” that “pulled this economy back from the brink” fell completely flat with these voters.  Across the entire congressional battleground, just 43 percent of voters found this argument convincing, easily the lowest of six Democratic economic messages tested.  The timing for such a message is clearly way off – and leaves the voters to hear Republican interpretations of the economy that, at this juncture, are much more in touch with the reality voters are feeling.
 
Though none of the Democratic messages broke through strongly, the two that tested the best are centered on the tangible benefits (unemployment insurance, tax cuts and preventing police and teachers from losing their jobs) in the stimulus package that helped working families get through the crisis, and on the need to rebalance the economy to ensure it works for the middle class as we emerge from this recession.
 
 
Meanwhile, Republican messages on the economy were slightly stronger overall, generated more intensity and were significantly more potent with independents voters.  The strongest Republican message centered on a straight spending argument, claiming that Democrats had approved 5 trillion dollars in new spending, added to the deficit and left a “mountain of debt” for our grandchildren to pay back.  This message was convincing to 58 percent of voters (very convincing to 32 percent) and was actually slightly stronger than a message that tied spending to increasing unemployment.[2]
 
Appendix A: Districts by Tiers

TIER 1 DEMOCRATIC DISTRICTS

STATE AND DISTRICT

DEMOCRATIC

INCUMBENT

INCUMBENT SINCE

2008 CONG. MARGIN

2006 CONG. MARGIN

2008 PRES. MARGIN

ALABAMA 02* Bobby Bright 2008 Dem. +1 Rep. +39 McCain +26
ALABAMA 05* Parker Griffith 2008 Dem. +4 No Rep. McCain +23
COLORADO 04* Betsy Markey 2008 Dem. +12 Rep. +3 McCain +1
FLORIDA 08* Alan Grayson 2008 Dem. +4 Rep. +7 Obama +6
FLORIDA 24* Suzanne Kosmas 2008 Dem. +16 Rep. +16 McCain +2
IDAHO 01* Walt Minnick 2008 Dem. +1 Rep. +5 McCain +26
LOUISIANA 03 n/a n/a Unopposed Dem. +15 McCain +25
MARYLAND 01* Frank Kratovil 2008 Dem. +1 Rep. +38 McCain +18
MISSISSIPPI 01* Travis Childers 2008 Dem. +11 Rep. +32 McCain +25
NEW HAMPSHIRE 01* Carol Shea-Porter 2006 Dem. +6 Dem. +2 Obama +6
NEW HAMPSHIRE 02* n/a n/a Dem. +15 Dem. +7 Obama +13
NEW JERSEY 03* John Adler 2008 Dem. +4 Rep. +17 Obama +5
NEW MEXICO 02* Harry Teague 2008 Dem. +12 Rep. +19 McCain +1
NEW YORK 24* Mike Arcuri 2006 Dem. +4 Dem. +9 Obama +2
NEW YORK 29* Eric Massa 2008 Dem. +2 Rep. +2 McCain +2
OHIO 01* Steve Driehaus 2008 Dem. +5 Rep. +4 Obama +10
OHIO 15* Mary Jo Kilroy 2008 Dem. +1 Rep. +0.5 Obama +9
PENNSYLVANIA 03* Kathy Dahlkemper 2008 Dem. +2 Rep. +12 McCain +0.01
VIRGINIA 02* Glenn Nye 2008 Dem. +5 Rep. +3 Obama +2
VIRGINIA 05* Tom Perriello 2008 Dem. +0.2 Rep. +19 McCain +2
TOTAL TIER 1 DEMOCRATIC DISTRICTS: DEM. +6 REP. +6 McCain +5
Margins calculated by “Democratic Vote – Republican Vote.”  In ‘Unopposed’ districts, no Republican candidate ran.NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.

TIER 2 DEMOCRATIC DISTRICTS

STATE AND DISTRICT

DEMOCRATIC

INCUMBENT

INCUMBENT SINCE

2008 CONG. MARGIN

2006 CONG. MARGIN

2008 PRES. MARGIN

ARIZONA 01* Ann Kirkpatrick 2008 Dem. +16 Rep. +9 McCain +10
ARIZONA 05* Harry Mitchell 2006 Dem. +10 Dem. +4 McCain +5
CALIFORNIA 11* Jerry McNerney 2006 Dem. +11 Dem. +6 Obama +9
GEORGIA 08* Jim Marshall 2002 Dem. +14 Dem. +2 McCain +13
ILLINOIS 11* Debbie Halvorson 2008 Dem. +24 Rep. +10 Obama +8
ILLINOIS 14* Bill Foster 2008 Dem. +16 Rep. +20 Obama +11
INDIANA 09* Baron Hill 2006 Dem. +19 Dem. +5 McCain +1
MICHIGAN 07* Mark Schauer 2008 Dem. +2 Rep. +4 Obama +6
MICHIGAN 09* Gary Peters 2008 Dem. +9 Rep. +6 Obama +13
NEVADA 03* Dina Titus 2008 Dem. +5 Rep. +1 Obama +13
NEW MEXICO 01* Martin Heinrich 2008 Dem. +11 Rep. +0.4 Obama +20
NEW YORK 13* Mike McMahon 2008 Dem. +27 Rep. +14 McCain +2
NEW YORK 19 John Hall 2006 Dem. +17 Dem. +2 Obama +2
NEW YORK 20* Scott Murphy 2009 Dem. +0.5 Dem. +6 Obama +3
NORTH CAROLINA 08* Larry Kissell 2008 Dem. +11 Rep. +0.3 Obama +6
OHIO 16* John Boccieri 2008 Dem. +11 Rep. +16 McCain +3
PENNSYLVANIA 07 n/a n/a Dem. +19 Dem. +13 Obama +13
TEXAS 17* Chet Edwards 1990 Dem. +7 Dem. +18 McCain +35
TEXAS 23* Ciro Rodriguez 2006 Dem. +14 Dem. +8 Obama +3
WISCONSIN 08* Steve Kagen 2006 Dem. +8 Dem. +2 Obama +8
TOTAL TIER 2 DEMOCRATIC DISTRICTS: DEM. +13 REP. +1 Obama +3
Margins calculated by “Democratic Vote – Republican Vote.”  In ‘Unopposed’ districts, no Republican candidate ran.NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.

MOST COMPETITIVE REPUBLICAN DISTRICTS

STATE AND DISTRICT

REPUBLICAN

INCUMBENT

INCUMBENT SINCE

2008 CONG. MARGIN

2006 CONG. MARGIN

2008 PRES. MARGIN

CALIFORNIA 03* Dan Lungren 2004 Rep. +5 Rep. +21 Obama +0.5
CALIFORNIA 44* Ken Calvert 1992 Rep. +2 Rep. +23 Obama +1
CALIFORNIA 45* Mary Bono Mack 1998 Rep. +17 Rep. +22 Obama +5
CALIFORNIA 50* Brian Bilbray 1994 Rep. +5 Rep. +10 Obama +4
DELAWARE AL* n/a n/a Rep. +23 Rep. +18 Obama +25
FLORIDA 10* Bill Young 1970 Rep. +21 Rep. +32 Obama +4
FLORIDA 12* n/a n/a Rep. +15 Rep. +50 McCain +4
ILLINOIS 10* n/a n/a Rep. +5 Rep. +6 Obama +23
LOUISIANA 02* Joseph Cao 2008 Rep. +3 Dem. +14 Obama +49
MICHIGAN 11* Thad McCotter 2002 Rep. +6 Rep. +11 Obama +9
MINNESOTA 03* Erik Paulsen 2008 Rep. +8 Rep. +30 Obama +6
MINNESOTA 06* Michele Bachmann 2006 Rep. +3 Rep. +8 McCain +9
MISSOURI 09* Blaine Luetkemeyer 2008 Rep. +2 Rep. +25 McCain +11
NEBRASKA 02* Lee Terry 1998 Rep. +5 Rep. +10 Obama +1
OHIO 02 Jean Schmidt 2005 Rep. +7 Rep. +1 McCain +20
OHIO 12* Patrick Tiberi 2000 Rep. +13 Rep. +14 Obama +7
PENNSYLVANIA 06* n/a n/a Rep. +4 Rep. +2 Obama +17
PENNSYLVANIA 15* Charlie Dent 2004 Rep. +17 Rep. +11 Obama +14
TEXAS 10 Michael McCaul 2004 Rep. +11 Rep. +15 McCain +10
WASHINGTON 08* Dave Reichert 2004 Rep. +6 Rep. +2 Obama +15
TOTAL REPUBLICAN DISTRICTS: REP. +13 REP. +16 Obama +6
NOTE: Starred districts have time series data from previous waves of Democracy Corps research in the congressional battleground this year. Time series data points reflect data only from these districts.

[1] This memo is based on a survey of 1,500 likely voters (1,000 in the 40 most competitive Democratic-held congressional districts and 500 in the 20 most competitive Republican-held congressional districts) conducted October 6-11, 2009. A list of all of the districts can be found in the appendix.
[2] See the battleground frequency questionnaire for full wording of all Democratic and Republican messages.