Wall Street Money in 2012

Wall Street’s influence on elections is always huge. It just usually occurs beyond the view of average voters. Next year’s presidential election, however, could be the exception.

With protests in major cities across the country, the curtain is down and voter attitudes toward bankers and investors may end up being a more significant factor in 2012 than is Wall Street’s traditional power to bankroll a presidential candidate.

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Wall Street is enormously unpopular. An IBOPE Zogby poll conducted through Oct. 14 found that 72 percent of U.S. adults have an unfavorable opinion of Wall Street investors and big banks. That includes three-fourths of independents and even half of Republicans.

Overall, 42 percent hold a very unfavorable opinion. Bank bailouts and the return of big bonuses on Wall Street haven’t been forgotten and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have reminded voters about how the top one percent got richer while the middle class treads water.

So how will candidates and parties—especially President Barack Obama and national Democrats—react to the anger at Wall Street? What role might the Occupy Wall demonstrators play in the 2012 elections? And how will Wall Street players direct their campaign contributions and respond to being a campaign issue?

Democrats would like to ride the energy of Occupy Wall Street without totally embracing the movement. This is not the Democratic version of the Tea Party; nor do they want it to be. The same poll that found such antipathy toward Wall Street showed opinion split on the Occupy demonstrators themselves.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are overwhelmingly favorable toward the Occupy Wall Street movement, while 90 percent of Republicans are negative as are just over 50 percent of independents.

So tying yourself and your campaign to Occupy demonstrators has some clear risks. The Tea Party started out with solid poll numbers, but it’s now a drag on Republicans with swing voters and offers disappointed Democrats reason to rally behind Obama.

Unlike the Tea Party, many young occupiers of Wall Street do not see electoral politics as the best way to change the world. The under 30 cohort, which I call First Globals, voted for Obama in 2008, but those who are now in the streets wouldn’t be there if they were satisfied with him. Even if Obama wanted to overtly join ranks with this group of protestors, it’s no sure thing they would accept him. My research finds First Globals are idealistic and lean liberal on many issues, but they don’t identify with parties and feel alienated from the political process. They can’t be counted on to even vote next year.

Obama and the Democrats recognize this. Even before Occupy Wall Street got full media attention, Obama started using more populist rhetoric to promote his jobs bill. With no hope of getting help from Congress to create jobs and little time for the economy to recover Obama desperately needs public enemies to run against and tying Republicans to Wall Street is an easy way to do that, especially if Mitt Romney is the nominee.

Still, bank bailouts hurt Obama more than the Republicans. Many voters see him as too cozy with Wall Street, and at the same time big business and bankers say Obama has been unfair to them. Either way, they keep giving Obama campaign money. One-third of the contributions collected this year by Obama’s top-tier fundraisers are from the financial industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Obama and Wall Street are co-dependent. The money managers will hedge their bets in the presidential race and Obama will try to channel voter anger without really alienating a needed money source.

Wall Street must recognize it has a real public confidence problem which can’t be solved with reassuring TV ads. Its interests are served by real economic recovery that takes the minds of voters off perceived inequities. Helping that happen may be the best way for big banks and investors to get out from under the hot lamp of public scrutiny, and might impact who gets their campaign contributions.

As always, follow the money.

John Zogby is chairman of the board and chief insights officer of IBOPE Zogby International.

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