Democratic study says party made few inroads

Strategists base report on eight focus groups

August 14, 2005|By ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

WASHINGTON - After their shellacking in November, Democratic politicians promised to do a better job of telling voters about their moral values.

But judging by a candid report last week from party strategists, Democrats have made little progress presenting themselves in a way that would recapture rural voters or make inroads into Republican turf.

The report by the Democracy Corps, based on interviews in rural areas and Republican-leaning states, offered a further testament to the cultural divide that has worked to Republicans' advantage in elections.

In response, several Democratic strategists said they are working to reverse voters' perceptions about the party's core values that have dogged them.

Authors of the study also pointed to openings for Democratic candidates: growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, unbridled health care costs and the direction of the nation.

But in a withering assessment of their own party, the Democratic pollsters raised doubts that Democrats can take advantage of Republican problems.

"As powerful as concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes - specifically gay marriage, abortion and the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life - quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics on the national level," the authors wrote.

The report says that Democrats running in next year's midterm elections begin at a disadvantage with voters in rural areas and "red" states - those captured by the GOP in the presidential election.

"The real problem for Democrats is that their elected officials, and by extension their entire party, are perceived as directionless and divided, standing for nothing other than their own enrichment," the Democratic authors wrote.

The report carries weight because of its high-profile authors. The Democracy Corps' principals are Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Robert Shrum, top strategists for Democratic presidential candidates in recent years.

It was based on eight focus groups - gatherings of randomly selected voters - in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Colorado in recent weeks.

While it carries negative news for Democrats, the report also presents the outline of a strategy to regain power. It points to Democratic success thus far in blunting President Bush's plan to revamp Social Security and Republicans' disarray on issues surrounding stem cell research.

The report likens the Democrats' situation to that of Republicans in 1994, the year the GOP regained the House for the first time since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower by running anti-Washington campaigns.

"If Democrats want 2006 to be a major-change election, they have to define themselves as opposed to the mess in Washington," said Karl Agne, a Democratic pollster and one of the authors of the study.

But Democrats may first need to deal with their own problems.

The report found that particularly among less-educated voters, cultural issues "not only superseded other priorities, they served as a proxy for many voters on those other issues."

In other words, voters who paid little attention to the difference between the major parties on substantive issues like economic policy cast their lot with Republicans because of party leaders' opposition to same-sex marriage and defense of Christian values in public life.

Democratic candidates have long fought to escape the negative connotations of the word liberal. But the Democracy Corps study suggested that they've had limited success, judging by the frequency critics used that word in describing Democratic positions on cultural issues.

The Center for American Progress, a Democratic-affiliated nonprofit group in Washington, is leading an effort to highlight the morality of many Democratic and liberal stances on social issues.

In Kansas City, Mo., last month, the center's Faith and Progressive Policy Project held a forum to discuss issues surrounding science and intelligent design during the battle in Kansas over teaching evolution.

The project is putting together similar meetings, usually in Republican-leaning states, on topics related to poverty, health care and civil rights. The aim, leaders say, is assisting the work of religious leaders and demonstrating core values of progressive voters while defending the separation of church and state.

Project director Melody Barnes said the effort wants to inject religious perspectives into controversial issues. "You can respect separation of church and state while understanding that there's a place in the public space for people to talk about these issues," she said.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, a Missouri Democrat, is a member of an alliance of self-described moderates called the New Democrat Coalition. He said Democrats are often restrained when talking about their faith because of what he referred to as the need for an appropriate separation of church and state.

But he said that after soul-searching about what ails his party, he has concluded that voters want to hear elected officials share their values so they can better understand who they are.

Carnahan referred to Missourian Harry S. Truman as a model for Democrats trying to reach a balance in presenting their public and private beings. Truman spoke often of his faith and quoted the Bible in his first address to Congress.

"I don't think it's so much changing as it is being open to sharing things in a better way," he said.

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