TO:          Interested Parties

FROM:    Jim Messina and Kevin Madden, on behalf of the First Five Years Fund

RE:       Seize the Opportunity to Own the Early Childhood Education Issue

DATE:   November 10, 2014

The morning of Nov. 5, 2014 was a moment of celebration for the GOP, and a moment of severe disappointment for Democrats. We’ve both been there. But for both parties, above all, that morning created a moment of political opportunity. Leaders in both parties – and voters around the country – are now looking at the new political landscape and wondering, “What’s next?”

The next two years are not a time to dwell in the rhetoric of the 2014 election – they’re a time for each party to seize the opportunity to build momentum leading into an open presidential primary process. Of course, that’s not so simple. How can a President and Congress so bitterly divided forge an agenda that results in policy action, and not just two years of sharp rhetoric? After all, much of what drove this election was political gridlock, voter frustration and inaction on Capitol Hill.

There are a number of policy directions both parties can take, but unless they find a way of working on those policy directions together, through bipartisan solutions, they’re going lose the faith of the electorate. Senator Mitch McConnell knows that. Speaker John Boehner knows that. President Obama knows that.

Given this shared stake in bipartisanship, and the reality that not every issue has a path forward in the next two years, perhaps the biggest political opportunity for both parties lies in the nonpartisan issue of early childhood education. In addition to the overwhelming body of science and research to support investments in high quality early childhood education for children birth through age five, voters also identify the issue as a priority. A national survey of voters conducted this summer by the First Five Years Fund showed that 71 percent of voters support a major federal investment into early childhood education – including majorities of Republicans (60 percent), Independents (68 percent) and Democrats (84 percent). Governors, mayors and business leaders from both parties have heard their communities demand these investments, and the time is right for federal policymakers to do the same.

With a commanding, near-historic governing majority in Congress and a presidential primary process on the horizon, Republicans need a fully developed agenda and argument about what they stand for on the major issues voters have identified as priorities, such as the economy, health care, energy and education. Likewise, Democrats need to forge a way to work across party lines, and across branches of government. In short, the political future of both parties is highly interconnected, and highly dependent upon joint success.

Early childhood education presents Republicans with an opportunity to rebuild the party’s image and take steps toward reclaiming the traditional Republican brand of being a party of both new ideas and reform. Similarly, it gives Democrats a tangible, nonpartisan policy issue on which to make an impact and lay the groundwork for political candidates not only on the national stage, but in states and districts across the country.


Proactively owning the early childhood education issue makes sense from a policy perspective, while also delivering political benefits for Republicans and Democrats:

  • Policy: Policymakers from across the political spectrum should identify issues capable of delivering a durable consensus focused on positive outcomes that can be felt on the local level. How many times have you heard a policymaker say, “Let’s come together, solve a problem and make a difference in people’s lives”? Early childhood education is one of the few issues that actually saw that scenario play out in the last Congress – and both parties would be wise to follow that trajectory in the coming months. Both parties must deliver actions that tangibly improve the lives of American families and provide evidence that the next generation will do better than the present one.
  • Politics: Political operatives focused on rebuilding party brands are motivated by the desire to grow the vote, cut into their opponent’s advantage and favorably position themselves with persuadable voters without alienating the base. This is an issue that will help win over voters from the suburbs of Denver to the exurbs of Ohio.

Exit polls from these mid-term contests bear that out: Many Republican voters do believe there is too much government. When it comes to education, however, Republican voters are increasingly motivated by a concern that the country is on the wrong track, with a cloudy vision of the future for our children and future generations. The Washington Post reported a staggering number from exit polls conducted on Election Day: “Almost half of all Americans – 48 percent – said they expected life for ‘future generations’ to be ‘worse than life today.” This data point should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers at every level.

Republicans recognize they have a limited window of opportunity with voters. Newly elected Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), said after his win on Election Day that if Republicans don’t do their job in the coming Congress, they’ll have the same kind of evening in 2016, except “back the other way.” And if Democrats don’t do the same, the Republican majority will only grow.

Exit polls this year also showed that the “Rising American Electorate,” the coalition that is crucial to success in the 2016 elections—young voters, women and minorities —dropped significantly from 2012. For example, in 2014, Latino voters only made up 8 percent of the electorate compared to 10 percent in 2012. Similarly, single women went from 23 percent to 21 percent and Democrats won 60 percent of their vote, compared to 68 percent in 2012. The conventional wisdom that the demographics look bad for Republicans is undercut by evidence that winning over these constituencies is not a sure thing for Democrats. Early childhood education can be a strong motivator for these voting groups, an issue where both Republicans and Democrats can make deep emotional connections with the aspirations and needs of these key voting blocs.

Very rarely does political strategy align for each party like it has in the days following the 2014 election. Both parties need to illustrate for voters that they have a forward-thinking agenda. Both parties need to illustrate that they can work in a bipartisan manner. And both parties need to create a platform that tells families and voters that their economic priorities matter. Fortunately, a foundation exists and Congressional Democrats and Republicans and the Obama Administration have a track record of supporting early childhood education funding and policies.

Congress and the President would be wise to sit down and roll up their sleeves to seriously build on existing bipartisan relationships in support of early childhood education.