Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, Reagan Democrats and evangelicals have all been key voter blocs in past elections. This time around, "people in debt" may be a group candidates target if they want to be elected.
The population of Americans in debt is not only growing; it's changing demographically, says consumer advocate Bill Bartmann, the CEO of debt collection company CFS II. Those changes could have political implications. "In the old days, 10 [or] 20 years ago, ... the people who weren't paying their bills, we thought of them as a substrata of society."
That perception has changed, he says. The CFPB estimates that 30 million Americans have debt with collection agencies, and Bartmann estimates that 20 million of those had never been in debt before. This demographic includes those "who went to work for a living, went to school, had good jobs, bought a home and did all kinds of the right things."
"Smart politicians will be sensitive to that," he says.
Thanks in part to the recession, Americans' debt troubles have ballooned. According to figures from the New York Federal Reserve, the share of Americans' debt that is more than 30 days past due stands at 10 percent—a percentage that has doubled since the end of 2006.
People's inability to pay for their homes has only compounded the problem. Nearly 7.6 million homes went into foreclosure from 2009 through 2011.
The amount of student loan debt is also staggering: at $865 billion, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. Two-thirds of students are currently leaving college with an average of over $25,000 in debt, and they are increasingly unable to pay it back. Nearly 9 percent of student loan borrowers defaulted in fiscal year 2009, up from 7 percent the previous year.
The population's struggle to pay the bills, which in some ways is a more widespread problem than unemployment, could become the focus of many campaigns as politicians try to appeal to a economically-strapped electorate.
Some Republican presidential candidates might face a losing battle among student debtors, where campaign messages about debt could mobilize young voters. Newt Gingrich talked about student loan debt as a matter of personal responsibility in a November debate, saying it would be a "culture shock for the students of America to learn we actually expect them to go to class, study, get out quickly, charge as little as possible and emerge debt-free by doing the right things for four years."
Gingrich's message of personal responsibility may resonate with Republicans, says Dan Judy, a vice president at North Star Opinion Research, a Republican public opinion research firm. Voters without such debt may look at today's graduates and say, "You know what? Maybe you should have gone to a cheaper college," Judy says.
However, Gingrich's argument could backfire with many voters, says Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and programs at Demos, a New York-based think tank. "This is not an individual choice. This is a system that we have let develop over time," she says. Draut adds that she believes President Obama has done a better job of appealing to student debtors than Republicans have, with his plans to cap interest and payments on those loans.
Judy says the topic of mortgage relief might potentially mobilize more voters, as home values have declined for millions of homeowners, including those underwater and those who are not. However, Judy says his firm's research shows Obama's plans to help homeowners refinance are unpopular.
While Judy believes personal debt may not be a central campaign issue, he says it could come into play via the larger discussion of national debt.
"There are voters who say, 'I can't go out there and continually run up my tab. Why is the federal government doing it?'"
To Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, personal debt is part of a different, broader campaign narrative.
"I think [indebted Americans] is a voting bloc that politicians can appeal to, but it's called 'the middle class,'" adding that Americans' debt burdens are threatening mobility.
"People want this economy to work for the people who work hard," says Lake.
If debt is to become a major talking point on the campaign trail, congressional Republicans may also face an uphill battle with regard to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal government's consumer watchdog agency. The GOP's continued resistance to the agency, from its structure to its funding, might hurt them with voters in financial trouble.
As the CFPB is currently pushing for supervisory authority over large debt collectors, that could potentially endear the 30 million potential voters with past due debt to President Obama, who oversaw the creation of the bureau.
So while the overriding issue of the 2012 campaign will be "jobs, jobs, jobs," the message that may win an election may have to focus on growing problem of debt, debt, debt.