The White House has no plans to give up on its blame-Bush strategy. A White House adviser says that George W. Bush and his policies created “the hole we’re in,” and President Obama will keep reminding the country of the economic “mess” he inherited.” — US News & World Report, February 9, 2010

“We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward. And I don’t know about you, but I want to move forward.” — Barack Obama, June 2, 2010

Forward not backward: That’s the mantra President Obama wants to drill into voters’ heads between now and November. – ABC News, July 9, 2010

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has been conducting extensive polling on Democratic messaging in advance of the election. His similar work in 1998 helped craft the Democratic message about Ken Starr’s overreach on impeachment, which, as I mentioned yesterday, resulted in the first time since 1822 that the non-presidential party failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a President’s second term.

On Wednesday Greenberg and James Carville released a research report summarizing the results of their extensive polling on messaging that is working for Democrats in this election cycle. It won’t surprise most people to learn that protecting Social Security, creating American jobs and opposing NAFTA-like free trade agreements are the messages most likely to persuade people to vote for Democrats.

But curiously, they left something out of their summary that set off red flags for a lot of Democratic insiders when they issued it as a Democracy Corps”Alert” on September 20. The Alert said quite emphatically that Democrats needed to change their framework in order to win in November. Greenberg buried the lede, but his polling reached a very clear conclusion: Obama’s “go forward, not backward” message actually moves voters over to the GOP:

Not All Democratic Messages Work – and Some Make it Harder

The weakest messages assert we should “go forward, not back.” Voters are not moved by Democratic messages that say ‘go forward, not back,’ mention President Bush, compare then and now, or even that hint the economy is “showing signs of progress.” No matter how dramatically these messages set out the record of Republican obstructionism, their work for the wealthiest and Goldman Sachs, the millions of jobs lost and Democrats’ support for jobs, small business and new industries – these messages falter before the Republican attack.

The messages get lower scores and lose voters. After hearing this battle of Republican and Democratic messages, 8 percent shift their vote to support the Republican, while only 5 percent move to the Democrats. We lose ground. These messages are helping the Republicans.

But, as we can see in the rank order summary of the different messages tested, this is the weakest way to go into the election.

This framework provides the least help to Democrats running in this election, indeed, leaves the Democratic congressional candidate a net 2 points weaker, which we can hardly afford. This is the only framework tested in this project that leaves the candidates in a weakened position.

When listening to people react to this message in focus groups or watching them react to video clips of this message, they respond with a common sense that we should heed. People are intensely dissatisfied with the economy and are looking for solutions – anything less sounds like excuses or some political blame game. Though voters agree the economy was an “inherited” problem, they do not like to hear politicians blaming Bush or looking backwards.

For some, going back to four years ago does not look so uninviting right now: “I was doing a heckavah lot better under Bush.”

“Who wouldn’t want to go back to 6 or 8 years ago? There was less unemployment back then. I’d rather go back. I’d go back to 8 years ago. I would rather go backwards than forwards right now.” White non-college female.

Because a “go forward” framework implies that Democrats and Congress have made progress those voters do not feel, the message re-enforces the Republican framework for the election – a referendum on the Democrats’ performance on the economy. In the experiment described above (where voters read the two Republican messages and the two Democratic ‘go forward, not back’ messages), votes shifted to the Republicans not only on which party can best handle the economy but also on the congressional vote. The 5 percent who shifted to the Democrats was exceeded by the 7 percent of voters who moved to the Republicans – a net negative 2-point worsening of the race.

That’s a pretty remarkable thing for Democratic insiders like Carville and Greenberg to write: that the core message being delivered by the President actually persuades people to vote for Republicans over Democrats.

I spoke with several Democratic pollsters and consultants to get their impressions of the Democracy Corps findings. They said that their own polling, as well as that of other pollsters have confirmed Greenberg and Carville’s conclusions.

So why is the White House pushing this message so aggressively?  Those I spoke to said it was tied to this chart:

The “blame Bush” messaging, they say, is imperative to Obama’s own 2012 reelection hopes. The latest Blue Chip Economic Indicators report forecasts GDP growth in 2011 to be 2.5%. Back in February, the Council of Economic Advisers’ annual Economic Report of the President predicted:

  • 2010: 95K jobs created per month; unemployment rate=10%; GDP=3%
  • 2011: 190K jobs created per month; unemployment rate=9.2%; GDP=4.3%
  • 2012: 251K jobs created per month; unemployment rate=8.2%; GDP=4.3%

The people I spoke with said the White House is very conscious that current GDP projections mean that jobs will not be created over the next two years sufficient to bring down the unemployment rate. Therefore, they say the White House believes that Obama’s poll numbers will only hold up as long as the country still blames George Bush for its economic woes.

“The minute that chart flips, and more people blame Obama than Bush for the state of the economy, the bottom falls out of his poll numbers” said one Democratic insider.

Stan Greenberg was a host at the FDL Book Salon last weekend, so I got a chance to ask him about his findings:

HAMSHER: Why do you think the Democrats continue to embrace these messages if we know empirically they’re not working?

GREENBERG: I’ve really puzzled over Democratic leaders stuck in a message that demonstrably doesn’t work. I’m sure there is more to it. I think the president genuinely wanting to persuade that there is progress and the economic team saying the president has to set a tone in order for confidence to come back.

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HAMSHER: [Your] post has really been sticking in my craw. I don’t know why, but it set off my “spidy sense.” It seems like there’s something else at play here.

GREENBERG: It is more to do with human nature. I wrote about this on other political leaders, including Bill Clinton. In 1994, he insisted on running on the accomplishments of the Democratic Congress and the president. Voters were not ready for that argument, but they were by his own re-election. So, more to do with the nature of leaders — even ones very in touch with people.

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HAMSHER: The question then arises, was Bill Clinton pushing a message that helped him lay the groundwork for 1996, at the expense of the party in 1994.

GREENBERG: Some early triangulation. He was starting to talk with Dick Morris. But I don’t think so. I think he believe it.

HAMSHER: Well, that sort of gets to the point that’s been bugging me. If you’re out there hectoring the base and you say it’s because you want to get them to the polls, anyone who has worked on a campaign for so much as one day knows that’s not going to work. And if your messaging is actually designed to drive people over to the GOP camp, and then you’re cutting off support for people in tough races who run against the health care bill, what’s the real objective here?

Rich people generally don’t like to throw good money after bad. There’s a lot of ambivalent messaging going on here, as you rightly pointed out.

The last point was in reference to the fact that the wealthy donors who in large part funded the 2006 and 2008 Democratic resurgence have said they will sit on the sidelines in 2010, another factor having a big negative impact on Democrats running for office.  Stan didn’t respond.

I’ve never spoken with Greenberg (or Carville) privately, or had any exchange with him outside of the public ones at the Book Salon. But I can tell you that when I talk to most Democratic campaign people these days, I have to hold the phone at arm’s length because they’re screaming so loud. They feel like they’re being fed into the wood chipper.

I do not know why the President continues to embrace a message in advance of the election that pollsters believe turns voters off to Democrats. But the consensus of Greenberg, Carville and others seems pretty clear: if Democrats hope to win in November, everyone should stop.