The protesters have a distinct ideology and are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies. On Oct. 10 and 11, Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at my polling firm, interviewed nearly 200 protesters in New York's Zuccotti Park. Our findings probably represent the first systematic random sample of Occupy Wall Street opinion.It's obviously risky for Obama to identify too closely with these people, but there are also risks in distancing himself. If you look at the various statements by Obama and his advisers, I think you'll see that they have positioned themselves in the middle ground with the message: We understand the protests as an emotional expression about current economic conditions. There's no identification with the protesters' abstract ideology or policy proposals — which Schoen's polling may reveal, but which are not that apparent in the protests. So Obama may have the right strategy: Characterize the protests as inarticulate cries of pain about problems that are real and that affect all Americans.
Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence. Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda....
Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost. By a large margin (77%-22%), they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but 58% oppose raising taxes for everybody, with only 36% in favor. And by a close margin, protesters are divided on whether the bank bailouts were necessary (49%) or unnecessary (51%).
Schoen cites the 1970 elections — the midterm of the Nixon administration — when Democrats should have gained ground but lost by "aligning too closely with the antiwar movement hurt Democrats [as] many middle-class and working-class Americans ended up supporting hawkish candidates who condemned student disruptions." The Democrats who won, Schoen says, were the ones who acted enthusiastic about law and order. So Schoen — who was a pollster for Bill Clinton — recommends that Democrats eschew the "huge new spending programs and tax increases" that the protesters would like and please moderates by "opposing bailouts and broad-based tax increases."
But let's examine the 1970 analogy. The antiwar protesters pushed a very specific policy: ending the Vietnam War. A politician couldn't characterize their noise as an inarticulate cry of pain. If you sided with them, you were opposed to the war.
So I'm not convinced that moderate voters will punish Obama for taking his "I feel your pain" approach to the protesters. The rest of America also feels that pain, and Obama is good at performing empathy. Make it all very general and emotional, and let that emotional fuzz further obscure the already vague policy notions in the mushy heads of the protesters.
True, moderate Americans dislike disorder, but how hard is that to deal with? Up to a point, merge it with the "expression of pain" interpretation. And if it goes too far and there is actual violence, you do what all the moderate folk do when there is violence: Deplore it.