Barack Obama did not descend from the clouds. Polling was involved, as were focus groups and the usual marketing machinery. You didn’t hear much about number crunching in 2008; you don’t hear much about it now. Obama couldn’t, and can’t, be seen as unsoiled and sui generis if his handlers talk too much about mechanics. But that does not mean they aren’t busy. In fact, they are nearly frantic, as Democrats face the possibility of losing not only the House but the Senate.
Obama’s lead pollster, Joel Benenson, and veteran Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin have zeroed in recently on one particular slice of the 2010 electorate: what Obama senior counselor David Axelrod calls “indie men”—independent male voters. Obama won over these voters in 2008, and they may be all that stands between Democrats and catastrophe this fall. But this time he’ll have to use a completely different strategy to lure them back.
It’s easy enough to understand the arithmetic of the midterms. Republicans are united and motivated, if only by their almost pathological fear of the president. They will turn out. Staunch Democrats, by contrast, are long past the giddy high of Obama’s historic victory. Minorities and other liberals are disappointed by what they regard as Obama’s lack of zeal—and he isn’t on the ballot in any case. These deep-fried Democrats will not show up to vote at anywhere near the record levels of 2008, and neither will young and/or first-time voters, who rarely come out for midterms. So if Democrats are to avoid a wipe-out, they need to protect some of the big gains they made two years ago among self-described independents, who, in some polls, make up 40 percent of likely voters in November. And most independents (51 percent) are males. “They’re a significant number,” says Mark Mellman, the polltaker for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, “and a decisive number.”
As Butch Cassidy once asked, who are those guys? They don’t differ much from the country as a whole in income and education, though they are slightly younger on the average. They are overwhelmingly white (87 percent in the Benenson-Garin poll). There are few evangelical Christians among them, but more Catholics than in the overall electorate. Most important, they’re not a parliament of Solomons, respectfully weighing the platforms of the two parties. “They are highly disdainful of both parties,” Garin told me. “They kind of hate everybody in positions of power, including government and big corporations.” They do not like ideological rhetoric, and they focus on concrete results. In other words, they’re Americans, but more so.
The Democrats’ support among this group has fallen to as low as 35 percent in some polls. The reasons are clear. They do not believe that Obama’s actions have produced results—and for these practical voters, nothing else matters. The $787 billion stimulus bill is widely regarded as an expensive, unfocused dud, even when measured against the cautious claims the Obama camp originally made for it. Health-care reform remains, for most voters, a 2,000-page, impenetrable, and largely irrelevant mystery. The BP oil spill has hurt Obama’s ability to fend off GOP charges that he’s ineffective as a leader.
Democrats are hoping to win back this group with one strategy: attacking the Republicans, individually and as a group. Asked the standard generic question about which party’s congressional candidates they are likely to support in November, “indie males” prefer the GOP by a margin in the teens. But after pollsters bombard these voters with negative information about GOP proposals, the margin drops to only 2 percent. In the Dems’ favor is the fact that these voters believe, by 52 to 34 percent, that Obama is dealing with economic problems he mostly inherited. “They understand that most of this is not his fault,” Garin says.
The plan is not to blame George W. Bush, or to seem to be blaming anyone about the past, but to warn that a return to the GOP brand—which isn’t popular either—would be a disaster. “The key is to be specific,” says Mellman. That means a lot of talk about how Republicans favor tax cuts for the rich, tax subsidies for global corporations, lax supervision of consumer banks—in other words, the familiar approach Democrats have used for decades. The goal, if not to win over these guys, is to keep them away from the polls. It is not a strategy for which Obama is temperamentally suited, but at this point it may be his only hope. Just don’t expect him to mention the polls.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.