Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville have released a striking new report arguing in stark terms that some key voting groups now reject President Obama's claim that the economy is improving -- and may well reject Obama himself in November.
Democracy Corps, the political consulting group run by Greenberg and Carville, showed several Obama campaign commercials to focus groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Several of the group members, who were "all independents or weak partisans and ticket-splitters" and included both Obama and McCain voters from 2008, became irritated when shown Obama ads touting economic improvement. They don't see that improvement in their own lives, the report says, and they don't believe Obama when he claims things are better.
"The spots that simply talk about progress on the economy did not do well," Greenberg and Carville write. "The first offered a graphic depiction of job decline during the early months of the recession and job growth under President Obama. The second highlighted progress on jobs in the automobile industry. These ads did not win over most Obama voters….Half the participants in the groups had voted for Obama, but less than a quarter gave [the auto ad] a positive rating. The spot displaying the job growth graph did not fare much better: only about one-third (12 out of 34) gave this a positive rating."
"It's like how things are getting better? Where?" asked one non-college-educated woman in Columbia, Ohio. "I don't see it. Makes me mad." Even Obama's oft-made claim that he saved the auto industry angered some. "The auto industry spot, surprisingly, produces a lot of resentment," Greenberg and Carville write. "Women in particular did not see how it related to them, and even some men working outside manufacturing thought it left them out." As one woman in Ohio said: "Good job for the autoworkers, but where does that leave my grandchildren?"
After extensive interviews with the groups, Greenberg and Carville conclude that Obama's current campaign message -- that he inherited a terrible economy but that now things are getting better -- is disastrously wrong. "We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative," Greenberg and Carville write, "one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class."
"It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance -- and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction," Greenberg and Carville conclude. "They are wrong, and that will fail."
The saving grace for Democrats in all this, the two conclude, is that most of the voters don't like Mitt Romney. "We are losing these voters on the economy, but holding on because Romney is vulnerable," Greenberg and Carville write. "Respondents immediately volunteer that Romney is rich, out of touch, and in the pocket for Wall Street and big finance. That was true before we introduced any information -- reflecting the outside advertising on Bain that was airing at the time of the groups in Ohio." The group members particularly didn't like the idea of Romney having money in offshore accounts and his embrace of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan.
But here is the painful bottom line for the White House: "Despite Romney's clear weaknesses, when asked whether Romney or Obama would do a better job on the economy, more chose Romney," Greenberg and Carville write. "That is some measure of the challenge we face, since many have heard the president's economic message."
The consultants urge Obama to find a new economic message that appeals specifically to the stressed-out middle class. And now, Obama aides are pointing to a speech the president is scheduled to give in Cleveland Thursday as an opportunity to "frame" the debate in a way advantageous to Democrats. But as Romney aides see it, the unspoken message of the Greenberg-Carville report is that Obama's only truly viable option is to step up negative attacks on Romney.
"It looked to me that they thought their most potent stuff was to go after Romney," one Romney aide said Tuesday morning. "It's tough to discuss a vision for the future, when your three and a half years in office have been unsuccessful in turning around the economy."