Liking the Lyrics More Than the Tune

Last night our buddy Greg Sargent of WaPo got to sit in on a Democracy Corps “dial group” listening session of “economically struggling swing voters” during the SOTU Address. He noticed, among other things, that ideologically freighted language, and even “redistributive” proposals to tap the wealth of the rich, did not much enthuse these voters. What they did like were individual proposals that offered them help with their economic challenges:

Specific policies were received very enthusiastically — more so than general suggestions of a more activist government role. The phrase “middle class economics,” and Obama’s definition of the values that concept embodies, were generally well received by independents and non-college voters, but they did not generate the enthusiasm that such applause lines were designed to elicit.

By contrast, the call for a minimum wage hike generated a big spike among independents; the promise of subsidized child care and more infrastructure investments energized unmarried women; and the call for subsidized community college and an equal pay law generated an enthusiastic response from non-college voters (many of them women). The call for closing loopholes to tax inherited wealth elicited a spike, but notably not as large as the above policies.

In other words, “populist” heat did not resonate as well as discrete, longstanding Democratic “making work pay” and “opening up opportunity” initiatives. That’s not to say these voters are begging for a continuation of “centrist” Democratic policies across the board, since they were also relatively cool to trade expansion, immigration reform, and climate change activism as priorities.

Political animals like us who listen to and read a lot of speeches and “messaging” tend to assume that a lively tune–the thematics–makes the individual words of the progressive “song” a lot more appealing. Sometimes that is the case. But sometimes they want to apply the lyrics to their own tunes, and the job of the composer isn’t just to keep playing the tune in infinite varieties until it’s “sold,” but to pay attention to what they are humming just under their breaths.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.