Sunday, January 30, 2005

Political pollsters say Democratic leaders risk alienating strategic parts of their party’s base who support President Bush’s plan to let workers invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in stocks or bonds.

As the political debate heats up over the plan that Mr. Bush will present Wednesday in his State of the Union address to Congress, Democratic officials are beginning a major “Million Dollars in Seven Days” lobbying offensive against it. They are calling their effort “the most extensive, far-reaching and effective grass-roots issues campaign America has ever seen.”

But pollsters who closely track how Mr. Bush’s Social Security investment proposal plays with the American people say that his reform cuts across every demographic and political line, appealing especially to many Hispanics, blacks and Asians who make up a large part of the Democrats’ political base of support.

“Democrats are missing the boat on a number of issues that can be of appeal to their own base. On Social Security reform, you are looking at younger voters, union members and minorities that find this idea popular,” said pollster John Zogby, who has done numerous polls on private Social Security investment plans over the past several years.

“The Democrats are very busy turning 48 percent of the vote into a free fall, and that’s not easy to do. They are not talking to their own base, let alone to the rest of middle America,” he said.

Numerous polls over the years, and Mr. Zogby’s latest national poll released last week, show that the core of the president’s plan is popular among many traditionally Democratic voting blocs. Last week’s poll by Zogby International found that 30 percent of all Democrats like the idea.

Support among minorities is even greater. An Annenberg poll in December showed that 54 percent of Hispanics supported the concept of “allowing workers to invest Social Security funds in the stock market.”

More than 51 percent of black voters, the Democrats’ most loyal constituency, say they would like to privately invest as much as half of the payroll tax in individual accounts, according to Mr. Zogby.

“The personal accounts have enormous appeal, whether Republicans or Democrats. That’s going to create some challenges for the Democrats who are standing foursquare in opposition to the president’s proposal,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “They stand to alienate a lot of younger people who would like more control over their retirement assets.”

Notably, lobbying organizations for many of these same groups of Democratic voters remain staunchly opposed to the Bush plan, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the AFL-CIO and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s largest Hispanic organization.

“At this point, while we’re exploring everything, we’re not for changing the structure of Social Security. We don’t want to see the fund endangered in any way,” said Gabriela Lemus, policy director for LULAC.

Still, Miss Lemus said that LULAC planned to hold a number of town meetings around the country to hear what Hispanics have to say about the president’s plan. “There have been members who have asked us to explore this issue carefully,” she said.

“The battle is between an overall national majority that supports partial privatization versus a highly organized set of interest groups who are prepared to rev up the intensity of opposition,” Mr. Zogby said. “This thing won’t win if there is not intensity on the side of supporters.”

But the polling data showing support for Mr. Bush’s plan among some Democratic voting blocs have not deterred the Democratic Party from mounting an all-out effort to block it in Congress.

“Together, we’re going to stop Bush cold when he tries to mislead the American people about Social Security next week,” the Democratic National Committee said in an e-mail message to its supporters Friday.

“And for anyone who votes to dismantle Social Security in 2005, we’re going to stop them cold on Election Day in 2006,” the DNC said.

But to some polling analysts, the Democrats’ opposition to any reform of the venerable New Deal program, which faces financial insolvency, smacks of defending the status quo.

“They are locked into being the party of old-fashioned interests,” Mr. Zogby said.

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