Lou Dobbs for President? Maybe Not.

December 8th, 2006

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It has recently become fashionable among progressives to claim the resurgence of economic populism.

The principal evidence cited by neo-populist progressives (aside from Lou Dobbs’ rising ratings) is the anti-trade, anti-corporate platform that some winning Senate and House candidates included in their campaigns. These populist stances, neo-populists argue, were what propelled these particular candidates to victory, along with growing public unease about the economy.

We don’t doubt the anxiety that many people feel about their economic futures and the future of America, and it is a topic we will address in a forthcoming Third Way report. But we also think that neo-populists are giving too much credit to the political viability of their viewpoint. Consider the following data from the 2006 national exit polls:

  • Populism’s appeal depends on disaffection, yet Democratic House candidates won exactly the same percentage of voters who rated the economy “not good” or “poor” as they did in 2004—77 percent. But Democrats made a 12-point gain among people who rated the economy “good” or “excellent.”
  • In Virginia, a battleground state where the winning candidate, Senator Jim Webb, has become a neo-populist hero, Webb actually lost voters who considered the economy “very important” or “extremely important.” Republican Senator George Allen won the latter category of voters 52 percent to 48 percent, and the former category 53 percent to 47 percent. Webb instead won voters who said the economy was “somewhat important,” 57 percent to 43 percent.
  • In three battleground states where the Democratic Senate candidate won, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Minnesota, large majorities of voters rated the condition of their state’s economy “good” or “excellent.” In Pennsylvania, 63 percent said the economy was “good” or “excellent,” in Maryland, 76 percent of voters thought the same, and in Minnesota, that number was 75 percent.
  • Many of the candidates noted for their “populist” platforms also ran on centrists platforms of middle-class tax cuts. Senator-elect Sherrod Brown, for example, called for a broad package of tax cuts for the middle class, including college tuition tax deductibility, a new homebuyer credit, a “new baby” credit, more tax breaks for child care, and tax help for people caring for their elderly parents. We would argue that this set of ideas was more appealing to the moderate, middle-class voters who comprised the vast majority of cross-over voters to Democratic candidates this election cycle.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. so aptly put it, moderates have only “loaned” their support to progressive leaders. If progressives want to build a lasting majority, they should be wary of leaping to conclusions about what it will take to win moderate voters in the long term. These tax cuts proposals came from Third Way, incidentally, and nobody mistakes us for populists.