Political parties vie for hearts, votes of middle class

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Instead of a middle in American politics, there is a hole.

No matter their party affiliation, middle-class Americans share many of the same economic fears, whether it is wondering whether they will have the same opportunities their parents had, or if their savings will still have value when they retire. The key for politicians is to make the pitch that their party has the better antidote for those worries, but voices on both sides say that is not being articulated well.

Studies confirm the obvious: Partisan feelings have calcified on the left and right. That leaves a growing number of people in the middle who say they are independent and not won over by either party, but otherwise have little in common.

"We're at a fascinating juncture now," said Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey M. Stonecash. "Democrats are relatively inarticulate about [economic woes], with no goal other than 'tax the rich.' ... Republicans sound to me sort of like 1929 before the Great Depression saying, 'Keep your hands off everything.'

"Voters have to be saying 'What the hell's going on here?' Doesn't anybody have an argument about how class plays a role?"

In spring, when the Pew Re-search Center updated its Political Typology report for the first time since 2005, it judged the electorate to be broken into two hard-core Republican groups and three Democratic ones. Neither side made gains over the six years in party identification: Instead there was a spike in those who identified as independents, jumping from 30 percent in 2005 to 37 percent in 2011.

But among those in the middle there was wide disagreement on political ideology, Pew found: Some are Libertarian and anti-government; some are moved by liberal social and cultural issues; and some lean right but go against the GOP grain by favoring more government aid to the poor.



That malleability is a big reason the parties have trouble crafting a message to appeal to them. But it also means there is great opportunity for a party that can.

Tony May, a longtime Democratic consultant in Harrisburg, bought a piece of a statewide survey from Republican firm Susquehanna Polling and Research last month that startled him. The pollsters asked voters of both parties an open-ended question: What is the single most important issue facing Pennsylvania today?

Given no prompts or multiple choice answers, 50 percent ventured it was jobs or the economy. "I don't think I've ever seen a number that high," the 30-year political veteran said.

That means there are a lot of people out there still looking for answers. Rather than say something vague like they will "fight for jobs," candidates from both parties would be most effective if they propose concrete solutions.

"There is a lot of ground to be won if you can specify a jobs program or job program success and take credit for it in some way," Mr. May said. It has to be something that "has real credibility because people are looking for some sort of light at the end of the tunnel here."

Mark Harris, the campaign manager for conservative Allentown Republican Pat Toomey's successful U.S. Senate campaign last year, said the same thing.

Republicans often "say big spending, big taxes are bad, period. I think the key to winning middle-class voters and swing voters is to say how does that affect me?" he said. Pointing to health care reform and the nation's rising spending and debt, he said "We have to make a story of how these policies make more job insecurity."

While coming from different extremes, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements typify people in the middle frustrated that politicians are not addressing their fears.

The Tea Party movement sprouted in 2009 due to the same kind of economic pressures facing all middle-class Americans, but did so in a typically conservative way, complaining of government interference with the economy and President Barack Obama's progressive policies, especially on health care reform and stimulus spending.

Most tea partiers identify themselves as middle class and most are older, according to "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," due in January from Oxford University Press. That explains why they were especially horrified to see their 401K plans plummeting, and why they complained about entitlements -- even while benefiting from classic Democratic programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The difference, authors Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson of Harvard University note, is that tea partiers feel they earned their right to those entitlements through years of hard work, and worry that liberals will fritter federal money away on other government programs.

The Occupy movement differs from the Tea Party in essential liberal versus conservative fashion: It complains that the government has not done enough to ensure equal opportunity, especially for young people. While leftist, the movement's many targets -- from corporations and banks to leaders of both parties -- mirror the growing agnosticism about party affiliation shown by Pew and other studies.

A late October poll of Occupy Wall Street protesters by Fordham University found almost 40 percent identified themselves as independents, 25 percent Democratic and 2 percent Republican. Almost 75 percent disapproved of Mr. Obama's job performance and 97 percent disapproved of Congress.

Despite the difficulties in pinning down a message for this shape-shifting middle class, both parties have to find one. That is where the swing votes are, and most people -- whatever their income level -- can identify with middle-class values.

The Republican message should be easiest to articulate -- with hard work and less government interference, upward mobility is possible for everyone. The problem is it butts up against decades of economic results showing the American Dream is on the ropes for many in the target audience.

"What Ronald Reagan was really good at was, rather than focusing on the negatives, he said, yes things aren't good right now, but I believe in America, I believe in the American Dream, I believe in the future of America," said Mr. Harris, the Republican consultant.

While it can point out differences with Mr. Obama's policies, he said, the party's message "also has to be constructive. It can't just be undoing what the Democrats have done, but what would Republicans do in a positive direction."

The Democratic view that opportunity is not there for everyone and government needs to step in to help is inherently negative and therefore a tougher sell. This is frustrating for Democrats because they see their message as more realistic than the Republican one.

Republicans "substitute emotion for specific issues. It has ceased to work well," said Mr. May, the Democratic consultant, pointing to the rejection this month of anti-union rules by voters in Ohio.

"Most people live their lives pragmatically rather than ideologically," he said. "How do I put food on the table, how do I pay the credit card bill for the clothes I bought? ... I buy clothes made in China. I don't want to do it, but I don't want to be naked either."

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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