Every political campaign has its bogeymen.
This cycle has had more than a few – think China, demon sheep, and even witchcraft. But as election day 2010 comes into view, it turns out the biggest bad guy of all is Wall Street. Of the million or so ad airings in House and Senate races, roughly 15 percent have focused on the high-flying investment sector of lower Manhattan. That's the largest of any single topic, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks election ads.
As we get closer to Nov. 2, the trend is accelerating, says project co-director Michael Franz. As the actual vote approaches, he says, Democrats are trying to gain leverage with voters. “It makes sense that they would try to paint Republicans as being in cahoots with the big banks that brought on all the financial trouble so they can send the populist message they want voters to hear,” says Franz, who is an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.
Democrats need a scapegoat, says political consultant Jerry Kremer, who spent 23-years in the New York Assembly. “Wall Street is the new enemy for now to help them get out from under all the anti-bailout sentiments,” he says. The most effective ads are specific, he adds. Take, for example, the race for New York State Controller. The Democratic candidate Thomas Dinapoli is making hay out of the fact that his Republican opponent Harry Wilson’s firm invested millions in the sub-prime mortgage market – a sector widely viewed as rife with fraud.
“It can’t just be a general swipe at money,” says Mr. Kremer. “The ad has to actually tackle who made what and from which investment.”
Early voting returns suggest that there may be a correlation between this stepped-up attack on Wall Street and Democratic fortunes at the ballot box, says Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt. According to a new Associated Press analysis of more than three million early ballots, Democrats have “an edge” in some states and counties. Early votes for Democrats outnumber those for Republicans so far in Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina, Louisiana and Nevada.
This surprising strength suggests that as the Democrats clarify their message, this anti-Wall Street trend could continue to help them. “It may make the massacre of Democrats that is being predicted less devastating than expected,” says Mr. Schmidt. At his blog at InsiderIowa.com, he highlights what he calls an odd Democratic reluctance to hammer this point home earlier. Why, he wonders, did Democrats and groups such as Moveon.org "miss the opportunity to point out it wasn’t Obama and the Democrats that created the problem that resided with Wall Street?”
Timing may still be on the Democrats' side, says Vanderbilt University’s John Geer, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He cautions against drawing too straight a line between an ad campaign and the fortunes of a political party, but he does point out that the Democrats have run a far less effective campaign than the Republicans this cycle. “There is a difference between campaign and governance,” he points out, “but both still require a clear message.”
This is something the party in power has been slow to grasp. Is this new momentum too little, too late? Not necessarily, he says. “If they had really played this anti-Wall Street message hard early on, they would have given the Republicans time to counter it." This way, he says, their message has the leading edge just as voters are headed to the ballot box.