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It’s the Most Vulnerable, Stupid

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg is co-author (with James Carville) of the recently released book, “It’s the Middle Class, Stupid.” So I had to chuckle earlier today when Greenberg revealed that his newest research shows that Obama might do best by focusing on the poor.

More specifically, Greenberg and his colleagues have learned that arguments about the impact of Republican economic policies on the working poor—represented in their latest study by the Paul Ryan budget—have the most power to move certain groups of voters to support Obama. Which voters? Greenberg found that independents, Hispanics, and unmarried women were most likely to be concerned about charges that the Ryan budget would eliminate tax credits for the working poor and result in massive cuts to domestic food programs.

But they also learned that attacking the Ryan budget only moved so many voters. What really helped Obama expand his lead was a narrative that grounded those critiques in a larger message. Greenberg tested this by dividing survey respondents into two groups. Both groups were asked to imagine a presidential debate in which Romney expressed his support for the Ryan budget and said that the plan reflected his values. One group was given a scenario in which Obama declared his opposition to the Ryan budget. But the other was told that Obama opposed the budget “particularly because of what it would do to the most vulnerable.”

With just that simple elaboration, Obama’s margin in the race more than doubles to 8 points. (Like other recent polls, Greenberg’s survey showed a close contest, with Obama holding a 3-point advantage over Romney.) Unmarried women were most moved by the statement about the most vulnerable, swinging 10 points in Obama’s favor.

Now, of course many of these votes are coming from groups that backed Obama in 2008 and have been hanging back so far in this election. Younger voters, independents, unmarried women have generally cooled on Obama over the past three years, and he will have a hard time keeping the White House without them. Protesting the impact of the Ryan budget on the poor reminds some of these voters why they were attracted to Obama’s message in the beginning.

But the narrative of protecting the most vulnerable also frames the campaign around questions of right and wrong. So far this year, Democrats have tried focusing on the unfairness of extending tax cuts for the wealthy, but those attacks haven’t resonated quite the same way. (Indeed, Greenberg’s research found this was the least compelling argument to voters.) Perhaps that’s because while Americans like to believe in the value of fairness, the moral stakes don’t seem as high as those between right and wrong. That’s a lesson conservatives learned long ago on social issues—Republicans don’t argue it’s unfair that women can get abortions; they say it’s wrong. When it comes to economics, however, Republicans would rather avoid debates about morality.

Greenberg’s research validates the rhetorical campaign religious communities have waged over the last decade, arguing that “The budget is a moral document.” And it also suggests that Democrats could seize the opportunity this year to insist on a debate about the morality of economic choices. “It connects what’s happening more broadly with what’s happening to the working class and the working poor,” says Greenberg. As for the wisdom of crafting a political message around the most vulnerable? Greenberg admits, “I’m a believer.”

Follow me on Twitter @SullivanAmy.