Democrats are Running on the Wrong Issues


credit: SenatorMarkUdall / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

In the Colorado Senate race, Democrat Mark Udall, the incumbent, has arguably pursued the "War on Women" strategy with more vigor than any other Democrat this year. He's run so many ads focused on the "women's issues" of contraception and abortion that he's been dubbed "Mark Uterus."

The strategy doesn't appear to be working very well. Although Udall leads by six points amongst likely women voters, who support him 45-39, Udall is down overall against his Republican opponent, Cory Gardner, who leads with 46 percent of likely voters overall, according to a Quinnipac poll released yesterday. With just 39 percent of likely voters saying they plan to support Udall, he's down by seven points. 

A new poll from the Associated Press helps explain why this strategy, versions of which are being run by Democratic candidates across the country, is falling flat: This year, most voters care more about economic issues than social issues. Via the AP:

Only 32 percent of likely voters called gay marriage an important issue, compared with 91 percent ranking the economy important, 78 percent with similar concerns about health care and 74 percent naming Ebola important. The issue that some Democrats have emphasized most of all—abortion rights—also has been a relatively low priority, with only 43 percent of likely voters in a September poll ranking it important.

…One domestic issue that remains a priority for Americans is health care. Only 3 in 10 say they support the overhaul passed in 2010, while nearly half (48 percent) oppose it.

Democrats are running on issues that many voters consider low priority. But they may not have had much choice. As a Gallup poll foundrecently, Democrats are winning on issues like contraception, but Republicans are now more trusted on higher priority issues like the economy and the budget deficit. As Gallup concluded, "it has become pretty clear that Republicans have a distinct and emerging issue advantage in the 2014 campaign."

Part of what's fascinating is that this is happening despite how thin the GOP agenda continues to be. Republicans have campaigned heavily against Obama this year, but have been reluctant to offer specifics about what they support. Democrats are running on the wrong issues; Republicans are running on no issues. Yet voters seem to prefer whatever it is the GOP stands for to what Democrats have already done and still have to offer.

But what this also suggests is the increasing weakness of the Democratic agenda as well. We have been hearing for years now that the GOP is out of ideas, and there is an awful lot of truth to that. But Democrats do not seem to have much of a grand to-do list either. And what they do have does not seem to be particularly motivating. As I've argued before, we've entered a post-policy moment for both parties, in which both sides have exhausted their agendas. Whatever comes next is going to be very interesting.