By Shane D’Aprile - 10/20/10 03:00 AM EDT
Democratic attacks on Republicans and the Tea Party for being too extreme are failing to sway voters, according to The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll.
Only 15 percent of likely Democratic voters said they were voting to “ensure extreme right-wing candidates are not elected to Congress.”
In Week 3 of The Hill’s four-week rolling survey, Penn Schoen Berland questioned likely voters in 10 toss-up districts held by Democrats who were swept into Congress by the 2006 wave that put Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in charge as Speaker. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 1.5 percent.
The resulting data underscore a broad worry among Democratic strategists that the party’s message is too muddled to rally voters, and that it’s already too late to turn around a looming electoral debacle.
This may be reflected by the fact that 37 percent of independents said they couldn’t name a compelling reason to vote for Democrats; 24 percent said the same thing of Republicans.
The Democrats’ most effective argument with independents was on protecting Social Security, healthcare and other benefits while Republicans’ most effective argument was with fiscal issues — ensuring taxes don’t increase and government spending doesn’t get out of control.
Democrats face sizable disadvantages among male voters. The poll found 41 percent of men said they couldn’t identify a compelling reason to vote for Democrats, compared to 24 percent of men who said the same of the GOP.
“I don’t think labels are particularly effective by themselves,” said veteran Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, who heads up the Patriot Majority PAC, which was formed to combat Tea Party candidates this year.
Slapping the label “extremist” on Republicans isn’t enough to motivate Democratic voters, he said, but added that the extremism argument goes hand in hand with talking about issues like Social Security and making the case that many Tea Party candidates want to roll these benefit back.
“The Tea Party is like a Rorschach test,” said Varoga. “People see what they want to see. So the specifics are always going to be more credible than the labels.”
The poll found that the most effective motivator for the base of the Democratic Party is President Obama.
A plurality of Democratic voters, 41 percent, said they support their party in order to give Obama “a chance to implement his programs.” And 37 percent said they were voting Democratic to “protect our Social Security, healthcare and other benefits.”
In districts where Democratic incumbents face Tea Party-backed challengers, concern over Social Security and healthcare benefits outweighed worry over right-wing extremism.
In Wisconsin’s 8th District, Rep. Steve Kagen (D) trails Republican Reid Ribble, who has the support of the Tea Party movement, by one point. Just seven percent of Democrats there said worry over “extreme right-wing candidates” is the most compelling reason to vote Democratic.
Similarly, in the 17th district in Illinois, Democrats have said that Republican Bobby Schilling is a Tea Party favorite, but Schilling leads in The Hill poll. In the district, only 12 percent of Democrats said extremism is a concern.
“It suggests that the basic messages for Democrats should be the focus here — protecting Social Security and other benefits,” said pollster Mark Penn, who conducted the poll for The Hill. “The back-and-forth over who is more extreme isn’t really helping.”
“I think the Democrats have really done themselves a disservice by demeaning the Tea Party movement, because you have many independents and conservative Democrats sympathetic to those Tea Party concerns,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said.
Meanwhile, Republicans appear more motivated by reining in government spending and preventing tax increases than they are by preventing Obama from implementing more of his legislative agenda.
“There’s a very consistent thread running through all of the Republican messaging to voters right now,” said Madden. “Washington, D.C., represents the status quo, and that means out-of-control spending and deficits.”
The poll found 45 percent of Republicans said they were voting for their party to “ensure taxes don’t increase and government spending doesn’t get out of control,” as opposed to 36 percent who said they were voting GOP to prevent Obama from implementing more of his agenda. Only 11 percent said they were voting Republican in order to “ensure extreme left-wing candidates are not elected to office.”
Despite the data, Penn maintains there is enough time and enough undecided voters still in play for Democrats to make up ground in these contests, but he did say the numbers suggest the Tea Party messaging might be “too much of a diversion.”
The past six months have seen Democrats both knocked off-message and shifting their message too often to establish a sustained appeal to either the party’s base or independent voters.
Democrats plotted a cohesive midterm messaging strategy largely focused on core Democratic issues like protecting Social Security and Medicare, though the party was diverted by the debate over a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
Democrats this fall tried to turn their fire on House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), attempting to make him the face of a return to Republican policies that Democrats say would advantage Wall Street and the wealthy over Main Street Americans. But they found their efforts hampered by Boehner’s lack of name recognition.
More recently, the administration has tried to demonize the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing the business lobby of using foreign money to fund its 2010 political ad campaigns — a charge the Chamber strongly denies.