Are Voters Paying Attention?

In the wake of his 2004 victory, President Bush seems poised to challenge the axiom that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. Democratic Party leaders will be making a very serious mistake if they believe that Americans will rush to the barricades to fight the president's privatization proposals. Blocking his radical attack on this vital program will require a careful reappraisal of American attitudes on the topic of privatization -- and a sharply focused strategy that will beat back Republican claims, particularly about the system's long-term financial viability.

The simple truth is that all too many Americans, especially younger ones, are open to the idea of some Social Security privatization. In a December Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53 percent of American adults said they would support a plan that allowed some Social Security funds to be invested in the stock market. Among respondents aged 30 and younger, fully 67 percent expressed support.

Even when the idea of investment risks is raised, a narrow plurality still supports some privatization. In a November CBS News/New York Times poll, voters were asked about permitting “individuals to invest portions of their Social Security taxes on their own, which might allow them to make more money for their retirement, but would involve greater risk.” Nearly half -- 49 percent -- said this was a good idea, while 45 percent called it a bad idea. To be sure, there are arguments that diminish public support for privatization. When specifically told that benefits would be reduced if the stock market drops,

62 percent of respondents opposed the privatization idea. Nonetheless, it is clear from polling that Republicans begin this fight with enough public support to wage a credible campaign. And nobody should think otherwise.

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Recent public-opinion polling also shows that Social Security was not a major issue in this year's presidential campaign. Election-day exit polls showed it ranked far down the list of decisive issues among most voters, although Kerry supporters were twice as likely as Bush voters to call it a top concern. Of course, any serious discussion of Social Security reform will increase the issue's salience, but the significance of the exit polls must not be underestimated.

Sadly, this lack of genuine voter awareness plagues some of the progressive community's most cherished issues -- from gun control to prescription drugs -- and it could raise its ugly head during the Social Security debate as well. Clinging to long-standing Democratic notions about the political power of Social Security is a formula for disaster. Democrats must take a fresh look at what Americans know about Social Security, what they consider to be their stake in it, and which arguments will most effectively persuade them to reject the president's proposals. Answering these questions successfully will be the key to winning the battle against the Republican assault.

What do people believe? First, too many younger Americans genuinely believe that Social Security will not be there for them when they turn 65. My own firm's work conducting focus groups for a number of clients around the country confirms this troubling finding. We have pushed younger voters very hard on this perception, and they hold their ground. This is not a view held by younger Americans alone. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans in that recent Washington Post/ABC News poll said that “there will not be enough money left” in Social Security to pay the benefits they are owed. Americans have also grown more pessimistic about the fiscal solvency of the trust funds over the past few years. Just 31 percent of respondents to the November CBS News/New York Times poll believed Social Security would have sufficient funds when they retire. This is a 10-point dip from 2000 alone.

These growing doubts about Social Security's viability should not surprise us. The program has been subjected to a focused campaign of criticism by leading Republicans for years. And recently, a confidential memo from White House strategist Peter Wehner revealed the administration's hand. “Right now we are on an unsustainable course,” it warned. “That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness.” That's why changing the perceptions about Social Security's long-term solvency will be so critical for the progressive community.

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Support for Social Security rests on two pillars of public opinion: a belief in the social purpose and the moral commitment behind the program, and a belief that Social Security is an affordable public expenditure.

Existing public-opinion research shows that Americans remain solidly behind this first pillar but are wavering on the second. With more Americans doubting that Social Security funding is affordable, President Bush and the Republicans will do everything they can to exploit this opening even further.

During the past several years, many prominent Democrats have shied away from a public debate about the long-term financial viability of Social Security, believing that it made more strategic sense to focus on the prospective loss of benefits for seniors and near-seniors. While I understand the rationale for raising these human costs over concerns about solvency, the strategic conclusion seems inescapable: Democrats must refuse to cede any more ground on this fundamental consideration. The plain fact is that Social Security accounts are only very slightly out of balance: The Congressional Budget Office puts the 75-year shortfall at just four-tenths of 1 percent of the gross domestic product.

What do people know? Once we better understand what the public believes about Social Security, our campaign to save the program must be based upon a surefooted understanding of what people really know about the program and what new information they are likely to absorb.

The flow of news coverage, and of political and policy information, has changed dramatically during the past 10 years, and Democrats must take a fresh look at the way these changes have affected voter understanding of substantive issues. The impact of cable news and programming, the Internet explosion, declining newspaper readership, and more have had a profound impact on how Americans get their news -- and what kind of information they absorb. It is a new world out there, and the full scope of it has not been fully understood by the progressive community. As I've seen in my own work, public understanding of some of our “gold standard” programs like Medicare and Social Security, even among well-educated audiences, is woefully inadequate. Worse, support for these programs is changing beneath our feet, a fact that we progressives must address, and soon.

But there is also much good news for Democrats in this communications revolution, as Roger Hickey and others detail in this report. The extraordinary success of the Kerry campaign's Internet program (nearly a million donors, 2.8 million e-mail members) and of MoveOn.org's efforts, for example, give the progressive community the tools to compete successfully with the Republican financial and media juggernaut -- arguably for the first time in a generation. Who among us would have predicted that John Kerry's primary campaign would raise $85 million dollars on the Web, or that the Democratic National Committee would out-raise the Republican National Committee?

Through our new fund-raising prowess, a revitalized progressive infrastructure, and these remarkable technological developments, we surely have the tools to defeat the Social Security privatization campaign. The operative question now is whether we will have the right strategy.

John Marttila is president of The Marttila Communications Group, a strategic consulting company. He was a senior adviser to the Kerry presidential campaign.

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