More Evidence that Populism Works

There’s one last nugget from the ABC News/Washington Post poll that I wanted to mention. In the poll, they ask voters for their thoughts on the “biggest problem facing the country,” and offer a choice—“unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity.” By a large margin, 52 to 37, voters said that unfairness was the biggest problem facing the country. I’m not a believer in the power of the bully pulpit, but this seems to lend credence to the view that—after more than six months of populist rhetoric and attacks on “you’re on your own” economics—Obama has pulled both the public and the economic narrative in his direction.

Combine this with the fact that Obama is winning independents, and you have a result that cuts through the most recent survey from centrist group Third Way. According to Third Way, the president’s populist rhetoric is hurting him with self-described “swing independents,” another name for voters who lack strong feelings in either direction. There are good reasons to doubt the utility of this poll. As Ed Kilgore points out, it fits the Third Way MO—Democrats should abandon aggressive rhetoric, and push an agenda of inoffensive deficit reduction. What’s more, we don’t know the partisan composition of the swing independents; it’s possible, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, that the sample contains a fair number of disaffected Republicans who will return to the fold.

Finally, Third Way’s results run counter to what we’ve observed over the last six months. Obama has grown increasingly combative in his rhetoric, and it’s been met with wide approval from liberals and Democrats. At the same time, unemployment has embarked on a steady decline from its highs last summer. Taken together, the president has improved his standing with both party stalwarts and regular voters. Outside of Third Way’s polling, there is no evidence that Obama has been hurt by his rhetoric, and plenty to suggest the opposite.

One last thing. In his post on the poll, Bernstein makes an important point about interpreting results:

Third Way’s conclusion that “Swing Independents think we should fix the deficit over reducing income inequality” promises a lot more than it can deliver. After all, most people have no idea what “fix the deficit” really means, other than it’s generally thought to be a Good Thing. Which is, in fact, all that the survey is telling us. Whether any actual votes would switch if Barack Obama talked more about the deficit, let alone actually proposed something that would slash the deficit (which, of course, requires either raising taxes or cutting popular spending programs or both), is another story altogether.

This was my problem with Third Way’s previous study on the existence of independent voters (as opposed to weak partisans who call themselves independent). Flawed methodology aside, Third Way made an assertion—Democrats should further moderate their language and positions—unsupported by the data. That a poll result moves in a particular direction doesn’t actually imply anything about how a political party should proceed. At best, it gives a sense of where parties and individuals stand in the court of public opinion.