Shaw Friedman: Indiana Democrats missed economic messaging
Friday, December 05, 2014 8:40 AM
LaPORTE – Democrats in recent cycles have won plaudits for our ability to use a good ground game to mobilize key supporters and get them to the polls. We’ve perfected the art of early voting and even in Indiana, which makes registration so difficult (30 days prior, no same-day registration), we still tend to do pretty well in our ability to urge our supporters to cast an early vote.
Micro-targeting has helped as we have brought more and more young people, minorities and single women into the fold who could best be described as our base.Then why the complete, unmitigated disaster that harkened back 20 years to a similar tsunami in 1994 that swamped our candidates and left us searching scorched earth for any hopeful signs in the face of massive losses?
Missing this year was a broad economic message to enthuse supporters and convert reasonable-minded independents. In my own county, we’ve used a straight party message or Punch 10 to help motivate voters and give them a reason to come out and support Democrats but were unable to link it this year to any overriding populist message at either the state or national level.
I have said for years that an economic populist message is the one theme that bridges the gulf between working white males and women and minorities. It is the one constant that avoids the demoralizing and divisive social issues that Republicans have traditionally and skillfully exploited to their benefit.
An analysis released shortly after the election by Democracy Corps and the Voter Participation Center, which works to increase turnout among unmarried women who are a quarter of the voting age population, concluded that single women’s support and turnout were woefully short this year because they “did not hear issues important to them: An economic agenda for working men and women.”
Give the Republicans their due. They focused singlemindedly in laser-like fashion in ginning up anger against the president. I’ve told the story numerous times of Republican mailers that were sent in against beloved State Sen. Richard Young of southern Indiana putting the senator’s face on the mailer with the president’s and urging voters to “send a message to the president’s man in Indiana, Richard Young.” There’s no evidence that Dick Young knew the president much less carried water for him on any issue in Indiana. But that didn’t matter.
In the face of a GOTV campaign among Republicans that saw turnout in some Republican precincts in my county reach 45% while turnout in traditionally heavy Democratic precincts slumped as low as 17%, there’s no path to win an election. The surge that was nationwide was particularly acute in Indiana, costing us seats in both the state senate and state house of representatives and also washing away some very talented county officials whose only sin this cycle was to have a “D” after their name.
As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put so well, getting base Democrats to the polls, and that includes working white men along with minorities and single women, will take more than “a high tech system to identify, target and nag them. It requires compelling ideas.”
Turnout across the country was historically low, the worst in 72 years, and Indiana has the embarassing distinction of having the worst turnout at just 28%. We Democrats will lose every time if we can’t motivate our base and give them a reason, particularly in bad weather, to go cast a vote.
I say to my brethren, nay, I beseech them: We had better remember our history as champions of the working stiff, the little guy struggling to make ends meet. As journalist Bill Moyers put so well recently, “The great problems facing everyday people in America, inequality, stagnant wages, children in poverty, our degraded infrastructure and stressed environment, are not being seriously addressed because the political class is afraid to offend the people who write the checks, the corporations and the rich. Everyone else can be safely ignored.”
As Hoosier Democrats, we need to develop populist economic proposals that make it clear that we’re the ones on the side of average, working Hoosiers.
Here are several easy-to-communicate issues we need to focus on: 1. How about challenging mal-distribution of state resources to already affluent suburbs around Indianapolis and say we want a fair share of state dollars and assistance going to working class communities. A case in point: The gold-plated Keystone Parkway in Hamilton County vs. crumbling bridges and pothole-laden roads and streets across huge swaths of northern and southern Indiana.
2. Go after certain corporate tax shelters and loopholes costing Indiana tax coffers hundreds of millions annually and dedicate that revenue to pay for free textbooks as 48 other states do. Let’s make good on the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s pledge nearly 20 years to ago to help out the middle class in Indiana by paying for textbooks.
3. Tell the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, “No more!” to its insistence that local option taxes or gas taxes be increased when it wants to enact more business tax cuts like eliminating the business personal property tax.
We want working families getting a shot at a reasonable job with a living wage, an affordable education and a decent retirement. That’s the Hoosier dream and we better be willing to confront those who would stand in the way. That’s the only way we Democrats are going to be able to excite our base and turn out voters. Let us vow never again to repeat what some are calling “the Seinfeld election,” which was truly about “nothing.”
Shaw R. Friedman is a LaPorte attorney who served as general counsel to the Indiana Democratic Party and is a longtime HPI contributor.