Democratic consultants want the Democratic Party to know that it desperately needs to spend more money on consultants.
That seems like the main takeaway from Edward-Isaac Dovere’s new story in Politico on how “Teflon Don confounds Democrats”:
Democrats tried attacking Donald Trump as unfit for the presidency. They’ve made the case that he’s ineffective, pointing to his failure to sign a single major piece of legislation into law after eight months in the job.
They’ve argued that Trump is using the presidency to enrich himself, and that his campaign was in cahoots with Russia.
None of it is working.
Data from a range of focus groups and internal polls in swing states paint a difficult picture for the Democratic Party heading into the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election. It suggests that Democrats are naive if they believe Trump’s historically low approval numbers mean a landslide is coming.
Now, it’s certainly true that Democrats aren’t assured of a 2018 landslide. At present, respected models predict that Republican gerrymandering will save Paul Ryan’s majority. And Dovere’s piece highlights several interesting — and plausible — findings from Democratic research on the views of (white, working- or middle-class) swing voters. To name a few:
• Free public college landed with a thud in polling of 52 purple House districts, as the policy “fosters both resentment at ivory tower elitism and regret from people who have degrees but are now buried under debt.” This response makes a lot of sense, and Democrats would do well to address it — especially since the ivory tower–resenters have a point. Our country needs more skilled blue- and pink-collar workers just as much — if not more — than it needs college-educated ones: Of the 30 occupations that will add the most jobs to the U.S. economy in the next five years, 25 don’t require bachelor’s degrees, according to Labor Department projections.
Therefore, a truly progressive “free college” program would provide an alternative stipend for work training (or, even an early career income supplement) to young people looking to get a foothold in a “working class” profession. Otherwise, the policy is vulnerable to the charge that it asks non-college-educated workers to subsidize the career development of (generally, more wealthy and privileged) college-track kids.
• The $15 minimum wage doesn’t enthuse middle-class workers who already make more than that. A more comprehensive message on how Democrats can improve the quality and availability of work is in order.
• A lot of (white) voters care a lot more about the performance of the economy, than about the president praising white nationalists.
These focus-group insights are all well and good. But that doesn’t mean that Democratic attacks on Trump aren’t working.
In fact, several of the consultants’ own findings demonstrate that this isn’t the case. According to the pollsters cited by Dovere, swing voters want to elect a Congress that will act as a check on Trump; Democrats are 17 points ahead of the president on the question of who “fights for people like me,” after being tied with him on that score back in February; and Team Blue has opened up a double-digit advantage on health-care policy.
Which is to say: The supposedly ineffectual Democratic attacks have convinced most voters that President Trump’s top legislative priority was a bad idea; a Democratic Congress would be better than a Republican one; and Nancy Pelosi’s party cares more about people like them than Donald Trump does.
Meanwhile, the non-consultant-generated evidence against the “Teflon Don” thesis is extensive:
• Democrats currently lead the generic congressional ballot by upwards of eight points — a margin that would probably give them a House majority.
• The ten red-state Senate Democrats who are running for reelection in 2018 all have positive approval ratings — while Joe Manchin, who loudly opposed Obamacare repeal in a state Trump won by more than 40 points, is now more popular with his constituents than the president is.
• In the 35 special legislative and congressional elections held since last November, Democrats have outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing (in the same districts) in 26. On the state level, Democrats have taken six seats held by Republicans, by the Daily Kos’s count, while Republicans have managed to flip just one seat into their column. And some of these Democratic victories have come in the heart of Trump country — Team Blue has already gained three seats in Oklahoma’s state legislature.
• Republican House incumbents are opting for retirement at an unusually high rate.
• Donald Trump is a historically unpopular president. You can put some caveats on the fact. Some polling has suggested that his approval rating is holding up better in swing districts than in the rest of the country. But the bottom line remains: Amid an economic expansion and relative peace, Trump has attracted the antipathy of nearly 60 percent of the electorate.
So, should Democrats fine-tune their messaging, and broaden their offerings on economic policy? Absolutely. But if you survey this landscape and come away thinking, The Democratic Party urgently needs new advice because none of its attacks are working, well, then, I’ve got a consulting contract to sell you.