As the Democratic Party rebuilds itself for the 2018 and 2020 elections, Democratic strategists have been preoccupied with a pressing question: Why did so many voters who backed Barack Obama in 2012 switch to Donald Trump four years later, and what can be done to win them back?
Top Democratic pollsters have conducted private focus groups and polling in an effort to answer that question, and they shared the results with me.
One finding from the polling stands out: A shockingly large percentage of these Obama-Trump voters said Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy — twice the percentage that said the same about Trump. I was also permitted to view video of some focus group activity, which showed Obama-Trump voters offering sharp criticism of Democrats on the economy.
Priorities USA, the super PAC that is working to restore Democrats to power, conducted focus groups of Obama-Trump voters in Wisconsin and Michigan — two states that Trump snatched from Democrats — in late January and polled some 800 Obama-Trump voters nationally at around the same time. The pollsters also conducted focus groups with so-called drop-off voters — people who voted for Obama in 2012 but didn’t vote in 2016 — in the same states and polled 800 drop-off voters nationally.
“[Hillary] Clinton and Democrats’ economic message did not break through to drop-off or Obama-Trump voters, even though drop-off voters are decidedly anti-Trump,” Priorities USA concluded in a presentation of its polling data and focus group findings, which has been shown to party officials in recent days.
The poll found that Obama-Trump voters, many of whom are working-class whites and were pivotal to Trump’s victory, are economically losing ground and are skeptical of Democratic solutions to their problems. Among the findings:
- 50 percent of Obama-Trump voters said their incomes are falling behind the cost of living, and another 31 percent said their incomes are merely keeping pace with the cost of living.
- A sizable chunk of Obama-Trump voters — 30 percent — said their vote for Trump was more a vote against Clinton than a vote for Trump. Remember, these voters backed Obama four years earlier.
- 42 percent of Obama-Trump voters said congressional Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy, vs. only 21 percent of them who said the same about Trump. (Forty percent say that about congressional Republicans.) A total of 77 percent of Obama-Trump voters said Trump’s policies will favor some mix of all other classes (middle class, poor, all equally), while a total of 58 percent said that about congressional Democrats.
“If you felt like your life wasn’t getting better over eight years, then you might draw a conclusion that Democrats don’t care about you,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, told me in an interview. “Certainly a subset of these voters were responsive to what Trump was selling them on immigration. But you had a lot of consistency with the Obama-Trump voters … in terms of the severe economic anxiety they face.”
A similar dynamic was in place with the drop-off voters. Priorities USA’s polling found that 43 percent of them said their income is falling behind the cost of living, and another 49 percent said incomes were merely keeping pace. “There’s a lot of commonality between these drop-off voters and the Obama-Trump voters,” Cecil said.
Skepticism about the Democratic Party was echoed rather forcefully in the focus groups that I watched. In one, Obama-Trump voters were asked what Democrats stand for today and gave answers such as these:
“The one percent.”
“The status quo.”
“They’re for the party. Themselves and the party.”
One woman, asked whether the Democratic Party is for people like her, flatly declared: “Nope.”
Hillary Clinton’s role, and that speech Barack Obama is set to give
When I asked Cecil whether Clinton and/or her campaign, in addition to stagnating incomes, were to blame for these voters’ conclusions about Democrats on the economy, he answered carefully. He acknowledged Clinton’s “high unfavorable ratings” but added that “some of these problems pre-dated 2016.” When it comes to communicating a message of economic opportunity that wins over both “communities of color” (where some drop-off voters are concentrated) and “struggling exurban families” (the types who went for Trump), Cecil acknowledged that Democrats “clearly have a lot of work to do.”
I also asked Cecil whether, in this context, Clinton’s association with Wall Street was part of the problem and whether Barack Obama’s widely criticized decision to accept $400,000 for a speech sponsored by Cantor Fitzgerald also risked feeding it. Do Democrats have a “Wall Street problem”?
Cecil pointed out that Democrats favor far more in the way of Wall Street accountability and oversight than Republicans do. But he acknowledged that Democrats must do more to take on Wall Street and said the party should represent a substantially more ambitious economic agenda:
“The deck is stacked against most Americans in many ways. Pharmaceutical companies that gouge consumers, for-profit prisons that abuse inmates and do nothing to reform them, for-profit colleges that offer false hopes and incredible amounts of debt (my brother went to one). Democrats must take on these systemic problems and we must name names.
“The second part of the argument must include a real, forward-looking economic plan that does more than rehash the same four policy proposals from the last 20 years. How do we deal with automation and huge company mergers? What do we do to address opportunity deserts in rural and urban areas where real investment is almost impossible to find?”
Ultimately, though, Cecil said that all this research and polling suggested to him that Democrats have an opportunity. The polling also shows that, among the Obama-Trump voters, large percentages of the more cautious supporters of Trump are concerned that he will go through with deep cuts to social programs and the repeal of Obamacare.
“To win back cautious Trump supporters, we should tie Trump to GOP policies that put the interests of the wealthy/businesses before the middle class and programs they rely on,” the polling memo concludes.
Cecil noted that winning back Obama-Trump voters would be key in 2018 to defending vulnerable Democratic senators and winning the many gubernatorial contests that are taking place in big swing states currently controlled by Republicans. But he also cautioned against too narrow a focus on those voters. He pointed out that motivating those Obama 2012 voters who sat out 2016 — and keeping Trump’s margin down among the college-educated whites who may be souring on him and are concentrated in many districts of the more vulnerable House Republicans — will also be imperatives.
“Democrats are going to have to make a historic investment in turnout,” Cecil said. “Democrats are going to have to have a real persuasion campaign that we lacked in 2016.”