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David Axelrod: Free agents identify with Democratic message


In 2012, Barack Obama won a solid election victory that, just a year earlier, many doubted possible. 

Who could forget the memorable headline on Nate Silver’s year-out cover story in The New York Times Magazine: “Is Obama Toast?”

In explaining that victory, much has been made of the technological mastery of our campaign, and the extraordinary turnout among our base of minority voters and the young. But the less-told story goes to Obama’s edge among voters in the middle of the electorate — Americans who are neither strongly partisan nor rigidly ideological, and are, in theory, available to candidates of either party. 

Among self-described “moderate” voters, Obama defeated Mitt Romney in exit polling by a solid 56-42 margin.

What’s striking, in reviewing the Esquire/NBC News data, is that Obama won the half of the electorate the polling identified as the “American Center” by an identical 56-42 percent of the vote.

The day after the dismal 2010 midterm elections, in which we lost 62 seats, I had a conversation with the president.

“I think the seeds of your re-election were planted yesterday,” I told him.

If he had commitment powers, he would have had me locked up.

But it was clear that the 2010 elections had dragged the GOP further to the right, and that the Republican standard-bearer would have to make peace with the strident voices who were ascendant within the party in order to become the nominee. It would likely force the nominee to take positions that pleased the party base, but disqualify the candidate with swing voters.

When you look at the profile of the voters who constitute the American Center in this poll, the logic is apparent.

The four cohorts that comprise the Center are varied in age, background and geography. The people they include may describe themselves differently when asked where they fall on the ideological spectrum, though they are not ideologues. They call themselves Democrat, Independent and Republican. But they broadly share a worldview. And when you drill down, it’s clear why Obama prevailed with a healthy majority of these voters, and why Democrats continue to have an advantage.

These voters believe in the education and targeted public investments aimed at promoting growth and opportunity. They tend to be secular and socially moderate, are more likely to be pro-choice, and supportive of gay marriage and gun control measures. They are weary of war and foreign entanglements, and emphatic that those resources are needed closer to home. They believe the wealthy and corporations can shoulder a larger load.

This profile better matches the president’s message.

At the same time, these Center voters strongly oppose wasteful public spending.  They want the government to behave responsibly, and to see individual responsibility rewarded. They resent what they deem as unwarranted “handouts” at the bottom or “bailouts” at the top.  

And this is a cautionary note for Democrats. 

The rightward and backward-looking bent of the GOP has driven many of these voters away, and alienated emerging, minority communities. But American Center voters are free agents who could swing back if a center right Republican seizes the GOP nomination and stresses growth and fiscal responsibility over the more divisive agenda currently identified with the GOP.

To maintain their comparative advantage, Democrats must continue to advocate for pragmatic, future-oriented plans to spend responsibly while investing wisely to promote growth, opportunity and a thriving middle class.