Dem pollsters go public with advice

Things must really be getting desperate in Democrat camps. Top Dem pollsters like Stanley Greenberg and Doug Schoen are not content dispensing advice behind closed doors. Now they are going public with their counsel in an effort to revive “the Democratic brand.” No, these pollsters are not rats leaving a sinking ship. They are busy beavers gnawing down the door to the helm room to grab control of the ship’s tiller.

My Democrat colleague here at The Hill, Mark Mellman, writes weekly on polls, elections and Democrat strategy. As a regular columnist, he has a semi-journalistic obligation, like I do as a Republican, to serve up to Capitol Hill readers some sense of what’s happening in our respective camps. But we are not writing simply out of frustration that no one is listening to our private counsel. I think that’s what is motivating Greenberg and Schoen. Reading between the lines of their recent essays in The New Republic (Greenberg) and The Wall Street Journal (Schoen), they are clearly seething that the Democrat leadership in Congress doesn’t see and fear the icebergs these pollsters see in frigid waters up ahead, above and below the waterline.

Greenberg spends most of his angst on revisiting the Democrats’ debacle of 1994 and how tragic it would be to experience all that again. Then he gets to the meat of his recommendation: pass the healthcare bill. Offering no empirical evidence, he justifies his recommendation by vowing that passing healthcare will “raise presidential and congressional approval ratings.” Is that all there is? What about winning the election? I don’t doubt that some vacillating swing voters would rally behind healthcare, but Republicans and conservative independents and Democrats would double down in anger. Job approval ratings don’t win elections; strong disapproval of policies will lose an election.

Greenberg goes on to dispense some vague advice about putting the Republicans on defense, delivering an Obama “economic narrative” and “framing the choice that voters face,” all boilerplate stuff, but muscling the healthcare package through is his central piece of advice. 

The central strategic shortcoming of Greenberg’s musings is his characterization of today’s Republican Party as a “cult” led by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and torn by Tea Party insurrections. If that’s what Stanley really believes and shares with his clients behind closed doors, take out a second mortgage, send the proceeds to Vegas and bet everything on Greenberg’s clients’ opponents. 

Schoen offers a more complex and sophisticated analysis. Rather than dismissing the Tea Party movement as narrowly Republican, Schoen sees it as a reflection of American voters turning away from “liberal, big-spending and big-taxing policies.” Now we are getting somewhere. But then, suddenly, Schoen loses momentum when he gets to his big idea, job creation. He is somewhat on target in his analysis that there is “only one fundamental issue,” employment, but he offers solutions that are too modest for the challenge. His expanded agenda embraces going “back to square one” on healthcare and committing “to serious deficit reduction and spending cuts.” Only with a more robust commitment to these secondary items would Schoen be able to create an economic reality that includes higher rates of employment.

After reading these Democrat prescriptions, I feel better. Despite the many challenges facing the Republican brand, I believe that GOP pollsters and strategists have more accurate insight on the public’s mood as we move toward Election Day. 

In particular, Republicans seem to possess a keener sense that voters no longer see government — particularly the federal government in Washington — as having all the solutions. We see that voters want states and communities, as well as the private, civic and not-for-profit sectors, to play roles in our national recovery. The Democrats are hopelessly stuck inside the Beltway.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.