The Dems, bless their hearts, are still struggling to learn the lessons of 2006.
For several cycles post-election results have showed that elections fought on social issues benefited Republicans while family economic issues benefited Democrats.
Dems Drawn to Social Issues Like a Moth to the Flame
The Dems have come a long way since being burned by guns and gay marriage. But, like an addict who substitutes the less lethal but still dangerous methadone for heroin, they just can’t stay away from the kind of divisive social issues that play into the Republicans’ hands.
This year Dems thought they had one that worked for them. Stem cell research, we were told, polls well and splits suburban female and business Republicans from the social conservatives. They were so pleased with their own cleverness they even made it one of their central ‘100-hours’ issues.
The Difference Between Numbers and Intensity
But recent polling shows Dems still haven’t learned the difference between polling numbers and intensity.
Gun control polled (and continues to poll) well. But the opponents had all the intensity. Result: NRA-types turn out in increased numbers and numerous Dems went down to defeat. Dems learned to avoid this particular third rail.
An increasing majority believe that gays should not be discriminated against. But, again, the intensity is all on the other side.
Celinda Lake/BISC Poll
Now come polling numbers from Celinda Lake and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) that show Stem Cell research is the same old story – the issue moves the minority opposition more than the majority who support it, even if the impact is less than guns and gays.
BISC with a heavy lift from labor put minimum wage initiatives on the ballot in six states. Worthwhile in its own right, the initiative was also seen as a way to drive up turnout among economically disenfranchised voters who often don’t vote.
In one state, Missouri, other Dems supported a pro-Stem Cell initiative on the ballot to move suburban Republicans to the Democratic column.
While Missouri is only one state, here is BISC’s post-election polling on the comparison:
The Missouri stem cell initiative turned out voters who helped Democratic Senate challenger Claire McCaskill win her campaign.
BISC post-election research shows that the stem cell battle was more motivating to conservative voters and increased the likelihood of casting their ballots for Senator Jim Talent, the Republican incumbent and vocal opponent of stem cell research.
On the other hand, the Missouri minimum wage initiative drew targeted voters to the polls and spurred them to vote for Claire McCaskill. This progressive mobilizing effect compensated for the stem cell initiative’s drag on McCaskill’s campaign, and helped her achieve a close victory on Election Night.
Attempt at Clever Politics Gone Awry
What makes these numbers more ironic is that stem cell research was never the moral crusade that pro-Choice or anti-Gay Discrimination is. It was seized on as a vehicle calculated to help Democrats as those other social issues had helped Republicans.
Let’s try to learn the lesson for good this time: the social wars play to the Republican strengths. It’s populist economics that plays to Democratic strengths.
Dems: Stick to What Works
In 2006, 8 of 9 new Democratic Senators ran on the trade issue. 39 of 42 new Democratic House members just signed a letter to Charlie Rangel calling for the party to supplant Free Trade Rubinomics with Fair Trade policies. They believe that, along with Iraq, is why they were sent to Congress. Economic populism is the perfect instrument to define the Democratic Party.
This doesn’t mean candidates should abandon their social values. Remember, we are not talking about legislation now, but what issues to raise in a campaign. Issues like stem cell research work in some districts but not in others. The decision to raise stem cells and other social issues should be left to individual candidates who can best assess their own situation. They are not the banner under which our entire party should march into battle.