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Insider Interview: Cornell Belcher Talks Values

As Democrats seek to find their way back to majority-party status, Cornell Belcher is the number-crunching guru the party is turning to for guidance.

Belcher is the lead pollster at the Democratic National Committee, tasked with deciphering how to find and court voters who -- in the words of Chairman Howard Dean -- have long been voting against their own interests -- i.e. for Republicans.

In order to develop a profile of these "backlash voters" -- as Belcher calls them -- he has conducted a series of national polls to find out what motivates these Americans and how Democrats can win them back.

What has he found? Democrats, despite entering each of the last few presidential elections with an edge in the eyes of voters on pocketbook issues like health care and Social Security, have been unable to close the deal because of questions surrounding their commitment to security and values.

"When we segment the electorate, there is a segment of downscale white voters with some of the lowest household incomes [and] with the least education attainment who are very anxious about their jobs and the economy but even more anxious about these value questions that center around their children and security," explained Belcher. These voters are "not voting against their economic interests, [they are] voting for their higher interests," he said.

As an example, Belcher points to data from the question, "What does America mean to you?"  Asked for a one-word answer, roughly half of the sample said "freedom."  Belcher's conclusion? "This idea that we should be about expanding freedom and working in the language and ideals of freedom was something we gleaned from the data," he said. "Republicans sprinkle freedom language in everything."

In order to win over these voters, Democrats must "change the narrative" around security and values questions, according to Belcher, and not allow the Republican Party to frame the terms and language of the debate.

Much depends on the rightness of these conclusions since Dean is relying heavily on Belcher's data to inform his rhetoric and shape the party's message heading into both the 2006 midterm election and the 2008 presidential race.

Such power and influence has come quickly for Belcher, 36, who has studied under some of the Democratic Party's top consultants and operatives in his short career.

Belcher got his start in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Democratic pollster Diane Feldman. Feldman is currently the lead pollster for Rep. Sherrod Brown's (D) Senate bid in Ohio and as Lise Van Susteren's (D) Senate candidacy in Maryland. Feldman has done a number of high-profile contests in the recent past including Chris Coleman's 2005 mayoral victory in St. Paul, Minnesota. Belcher left her shop in 1995 to take a vice president slot at Lester & Associates under pollster Ron Lester -- one of the few African American political consultants on either side of the political aisle.  Belcher, too, is black.

During the 1998 cycle Belcher joined EMILY's List, the pro-abortion rights powerhouse, at the urging of the group's executive director -- Mary Beth Cahill. While with the organization, Belcher ran the group's "Women Vote" program, which focuses on increasing turnout among female voters.

At the start of the 2000 election cycle, Belcher was recruited by Donna Brazile to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee where he helped set up base voter turnout programs and build individual campaigns' infrastructures.

In early 2001, Belcher saw an opportunity to strike out on his own when longtime California Democratic Rep. Julian Dixon passed away and a special election was called to fill the 32nd District.  Belcher made a trip to the district and landed a candidate -- wealthy businessman Phillip Lowe. Although Lowe lost the race, Belcher's career as a consultant was launched.

He is now the sole partner in Brilliant Corners, a "boutique" consulting firm that, according to Belcher, focuses on a few progressive clients each cycle. "I don't ever want to be a 30 or 40-person firm that does large projects," said Belcher. "I want to give concentrated attention to the projects I [am] interested in."

The majority of Belcher's work since that first race in 2001 has come from liberal interest groups, including two major unions (the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union) and, in 2004, America Coming Together -- the single largest soft-money group ever created.

For now, Belcher's work at the DNC is occupying the majority of his time as he seeks to provide Dean with the empirical data the former Vermont governor needs to return Democrats to control of Congress and the White House.

Belcher talks regularly about the "narrative" of political parties -- the story line behind the issue positions adopted by each side that is told to voters. For too long, Belcher said, Democrats have allowed Republicans to dictate the terms of debate -- typically centered on divisive social issues like gay marriage and abortion. In their rhetoric and their actions, Democrats have played along with the GOP strategy, distancing themselves from voters who largely agree with the party on the broad social issues of the day including expanding health care to the uninsured and the issue of poverty in America.

"When [Republicans] define moral values as gay marriage and abortion, that is a very narrow conversation," said Belcher. "There is not a majority consensus around abortion and gay marriage as being morally wrong. There is [that consensus] around poverty and health care being a moral issue." In order to win on values, Democrats must "expand the conversation" to talk an expanded palette of issues, such as providing better educational opportunities to America's children and addressing the growing expanse between rich and poor in the country.

The other major narrative hurdle for Democrats is on the issue of security. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush has transformed his willingness to stand up for what he believes into a moral value, Belcher said. "Strength [has] become a moral value."

In order to counter that development, Democrats must talk about their issue positions from their own moral center. "When you talk about your policies from a values standpoint it becomes a different kind of conversation," said Belcher, pointing out that 2005 gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia were the result of this a value-centered political discussion initiated by Democrats.

With Republicans apparently set on turning the 2006 election into a referendum on security, Belcher's analysis may help his party ensure that the GOP message backfires.  But will Democratic lawmakers listen to his advice?

-- Chris Cillizza

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 30, 2006; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Insider Interview  
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