A new Democracy Corps report based on focus groups composed of independents plus “weak” Democrats and Republicans (non-college educated folk in Columbus, OH and college-educated voters in suburban Philly) advises the president to abandon efforts to convince these voters that the economy is doing better and better each day, and in general to fight the framing of the election as a referendum on the economy during his administration:

It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the President talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery.

We are losing these voters on the economy, but holding on because Romney is very vulnerable. They do not trust him because of who he is for and because he’s out of touch with ordinary people; he is vulnerable on the Ryan budget and its impact on people; he is vulnerable on the choices over taxes


The report goes into rich detail on the struggles of these voters in the current economic environment, and their refusal to believe “things are getting better.” They clearly like Obama better than Romney, but want to hear the president talk about his plans for the future rather than his claims of accomplishment in the past, and need to hear him talk about Romney’s agenda.

By far, the strongest [positive] message was one focused on the future of the middle class — with minimal discussion of the recovery and jobs created and maximal empathy for the challenges people face. Most voters identified with the line that “the middle class has taken it on the chin for years.” The message turns mid-way to what we will do, beginning with raising taxes on those earning over $200,000 to make the economy work better for the middle class. It taps into their frustrations that began building before the recession even hit and recognizes that this election needs to be about the “future of the middle class.”

In terms of Romney, constant reminders of his own wealth (particularly his offshore accounts) damage the Republican. As for his agenda:

Romney’s support for the Ryan budget is a real vulnerability. Many voters are not familiar with the Ryan budget or Romney’s full-throated support for it. When informed about the budget’s contents and Romney’s endorsement, voters’ worst fears about Romney are confirmed.

And it’s not just a matter of endlessly talking about Medicare:

These participants—especially the non-college-educated men who have been affected personally or know someone who has—are very sensitive to cuts in Medicaid, to disability, and food stamps. People rely on these programs-and the protection of Social Security and Medicare. They just can’t fathom billions of dollars in cuts to these programs. Anger increases when the proposal is juxtaposed with cutting taxes for millionaires. In addition, the college-educated men seemed to recognize that when these programs are cut at the bottom, the whole economy is affected because people are unable to get ahead, spend money, and get the economy going again.

What’s striking about Democracy Corps’ suggested message for swing voters is how close it is to a message “base” voters will respond to as well. Those urging Obama to stop “going negative” and offer sunny assessments of how wonderful life is becoming are missing the boat by a mile; they don’t comport with voters’ own experiences, and run the risk of making the president look as out of touch as Romney. The most important three words Team Obama needs to hear are: compare, compare, compare. That’s not just smart politics, but an accurate reflection of the big choices voters will actually be making in November.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.