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Democrats can win with populism — if they play it right

File: President Obama speaks about strengthening the economy for the middle class and the nation's struggle with gun violence at an appearance at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago last year. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Democrats don't have much going for them in the 2014 election, and they're struggling for ways to motivate their voters.

Their best chance is to focus on economic populism.

A new poll from AP-GfK asked Americans what their top impressions were of the two political parties. The pollster then grouped similar-sounding responses together to give a sense of the prevailing views of both parties

Below are the descriptions mentioned for the Republican Party and the Democratic Party (with positive descriptions in green, neutral ones in yellow and negative ones in red).

First, the GOP:


Next, the Democrats:


As you can see, the most popular description for the GOP is "supports wealthy/business/not for the people." This is the prevailing view of the Republican Party, far outpacing any other description.

The top description for Democrats is pretty much the inverse -- that they are "for the people" or "for working people."

Now, this caveat: This is hardly a foolproof measure, and there could be some people who don't view the GOP's pro-business reputation as necessarily a bad thing. But we would argue that, when it comes to the voting booth, that reputation doesn't help -- especially given how many people of all political stripes think the economic system is rigged.

It's pretty clear that much of the GOP's perception problem has to do with it being viewed as the party of and for the wealthy, while Democrats are viewed as being much more "for the people." It's no coincidence that the opposing views on this subject rank No. 1 for both sides.

But -- and this is a big but -- just because this might well be Democrats' best argument in 2014 doesn't mean it's going to work. Indeed, Democrats seem to have tried a bunch of different ways to press this idea, including the Koch brothers strategy, income inequality, and now -- having largely moved past both of those -- a more general pro-middle class message. All three are aimed at creating a contrast in an area that works in Democrats' favor.

But they don't seem to have found their silver bullet just yet. And merely talking about a political issue doesn't make it relevant to the people's votes.

Rest assured, though, over the next four months, Democrats will keep trying to hammer this one home.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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