How Occupy Wall Street is testing the next US president

While it’s too early to predict how Occupy Wall Street will affect local elections, presidential candidates have begun to recalibrate their campaigns to address the movement's challenges.

Kathy Willens/AP
A motorcycle patrolman keeps Occupy Wall Street protesters on the sidewalk as they march down Broadway to the Charging Bull statue, Monday, Oct. 24, 2011, in New York. Having started in New York, Occupy Wall Streets demonstrations now take place all across the United States, as protesters speak out against corporate greed and the gap between the rich and the poor.

As buzz grows and poll numbers rise for Occupy Wall Street, the now-global movement that launched in New York City on Sept. 17 may yet become the unexpected, outside player that forces the 2012 election field to adjust its course.

A new AP-GfK poll shows that 37 percent of the American public supports OWS, while research firm Chitika shows that online interest in the movement has swelled 150 percent over the past month.

“This will have major implications on the upcoming elections,” says Gabriel Donnini, analyst at the Westborough, Mass.-based online analytics firm, Chitika. “The movement is not dying out or going quietly and candidates will need to address the concerns and demands voiced by those on the streets and making a buzz on the Internet,” he adds.

While it’s too early to predict the impact Occupy Wall Street will have on local elections, presidential candidates have begun to recalibrate their responses, say political observers.

GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, for instance, has already shifted from using class warfare rhetoric, says Sarah Sobieraj, assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of "Sound-bitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism."

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“Romney has said things like, ‘I worry about the 99 percent in America'," Ms. Sobieraj says, "which is a pretty clear reference to the Occupy movement.”

If the movement sustains itself at its current level, she adds, “it’s going to be hard for politicians to avoid.”

President Obama has already embraced the movement, validating frustrations about jobs and the state of the economy, says Sobieraj.

Some congressional candidates have adopted the language of the movement too. Elizabeth Warren “sounds like one of the protestors,” says Sobieraj, noting the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate's comments about the lack of accountability in financial institutions.

As the Occupy movement gains strength, politicians will have to strategize carefully, notes Carnegie Mellon University’s Kiron Skinner, co-author of “The Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons from Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin.”

The role of the growing Occupy movement is important for politicians because it is providing a clear policy alternative to the ground staked out by the tea party position, Ms. Skinner says. The challenge “will entail reconciling two very clear and different positions about the role of government in the economy.”

And the politician that can reconcile these two very different positions will most likely be stronger than his or her competitor, she says.

At this stage in the 2010 midterm elections, many analysts questioned whether the tea party would have a significant impact, says Robin Lauermann, professor of politics at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.

“They had a greater impact than some expected, though they have not coalesced enough to be the sole dominating influence for the 2012 GOP race," Ms. Lauermann. Though, she adds, "Much can happen in a year."

"As the Occupy movement endures and maintains its peaceable approach, it certainly has the potential to grow as a counterpoint in the upcoming elections," especially Lauermann says, if Obama can transform their dissatisfaction into votes.

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