The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will the ‘Trump economy’ save the GOP? Here’s the Democratic strategy to prevent that.

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

It has become an article of faith among Republicans and some pundits: If only President Trump would stop with the racism and cruelty (as with family separations), the authoritarian assaults on the press and on the Mueller probe, and the panting embraces of Vladimir Putin, Republicans could bask in the glorious “Trump economy” and stave off big losses this fall.

In this telling, if the election were about only the economy, Republicans would still face stiff headwinds but might at least weather them to the degree needed to hold the House. Friday morning, the monthly jobs report showed the unemployment rate ticking down to 3.9 percent, which would seem to support that notion.

But Democrats have reached a very different conclusion. They believe they can actually win the argument over the economy in a way that advantages them in the midterms. Indeed, they think it’s imperative they break through to the voters with an economic argument if they are going to win at all.

This reading of the midterms is laid out in a new polling memo from the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. You should always treat partisan polls with skepticism, but this memo — which was first reported by Axios — also suggests that Democrats face a serious challenge in this regard as well: It warns that the information environment could make it harder for them to communicate that argument. The onus is on candidates to do something about this, and succeeding is anything but assured.

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Priorities USA surveyed 1,000 presidential-year voters and people who recently registered to vote and found:

  • Voters are evenly divided on Trump’s economic policies in general, with 41 percent viewing them favorably and 41 percent viewing them unfavorably.

However, on some of the specifics, Trump fares worse:

  • By 56-31, voters say they have an unfavorable reaction to what they’ve been hearing about Trump’s trade policies and his developing trade war with China and Europe.
  • Only 33 percent view the Trump/GOP tax law favorably, while 21 percent are neutral and 38 percent view it unfavorably.
  • By 47-22, voters say things are getting worse rather than better in terms of wages keeping pace with the cost of living.
  • 64 percent say the cost of health care is getting worse.

Crucial to winning the argument over the economy in a way that advantages Dems in the midterms is using it to reach what the memo describes as “weak Trump voters.” The memo argues that these voters (as opposed to gung-ho Trump supporters), who include non-college-educated whites and independents, among others, react badly to Trump’s trade war, and a large majority of them (57 percent) see worsening health-care costs. The memo also suggests that the way to reach non-college-educated white voters is to stress flat wages and defend Medicare and Medicaid against cuts.

The push and shove between progressives and moderates is not cause for concern, says opinion writer Jennifer Rubin. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

While Democratic hopes this fall turn heavily on base turnout, of course, Democrats have also concluded these weak Trump voters will be important to their fortunes, particularly with incumbent Democratic senators fighting for survival in numerous states carried by Trump, and one Democratic candidate (Phil Bredesen) trying to capture a GOP-held seat in another Trump state (Tennessee).

“In the red states, Democratic senators plus Phil Bredesen have to win something between 18 percent and 24 percent of the Trump vote to be elected,” Geoff Garin, a pollster who worked on the memo, told me. “These weak Trump voters are the ones who are most likely to be willing to support a Democrat, or stay home.” Meanwhile, Garin says, in the House, winning some Trump weak voters makes it more likely that Democrats can contest more House seats in tough territory, because it makes them “more viable in more districts.”

Democrats face two big challenges

However, Democrats face two major challenges in this regard. The first is the difficulty of puncturing their message about the economy through the din of press coverage of other matters, especially child separations and the Russia probe and Trump’s reaction to it. This isn’t to say that Democrats are at a disadvantage on those issues — the opposite is very likely the case — but rather that in addition to winning the argument about those things, it is also a crucial ingredient that their message about the economy get heard. “Unlike Russia and immigration, voters won’t hear about this as much in the press,” the memo concludes, “meaning Democrats must continue to carry the message in paid media and on the campaign trail.”

The second big challenge Democrats face is that it isn’t clear voters will necessarily base their choices on personal perceptions of the economy, rather than on general perceptions of it. A recent Post-Schar School poll found that 57 percent of voters rate the economy as good or excellent, including 58 percent in battleground districts.

Thus, the imperative for Democrats is to get voters to base their choice instead on their personal experience of the economy, as well as on specific Republican policies that would slash the safety net, particularly on health care (an area where Democrats are stronger). Of course, many Democrats are already trying to do this. As Margot Sanger-Katz reports, Democratic candidates around the country are stressing health care, crucially by asking audiences how many of them suffer from preexisting conditions, thus personalizing the issue, which is essential.

So when you see Democratic candidates trying to stress voters’ personal experience of the economy and the health-care system, and highlighting specific Trump/GOP policies on both fronts, this memo helps shed light on the thinking behind it.