Public and private polling underscores the potential peril. But those polls also point to a potential solution for Democrats: Borrow from the populist playbook that Donald Trump ran on but never implemented.
The hurdle that Democrats confront was evident to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg when he surveyed registered voters this month in 11 states and 13 congressional districts that will be battlegrounds in 2022. What most struck Greenberg was the high level of engagement among Trump loyalists. Republican interest in what’s happening in Washington predictably dropped after the presidential election — but not nearly as much as among President Biden’s supporters. And it remains higher than at a comparable point in 2017, the last midterm cycle.
“Alarmingly, Democrats are barely following politics,” said Greenberg. By contrast, he said of the GOP, “Their base is uniquely unified and engaged.” Trump is out of office, but in a way unprecedented among modern presidents, he is very much on the ballot, with a corps of committed supporters who wrongly believe Biden’s election was illegitimate and are eager for payback.
“The era of high turnout elections is not over,” Greenberg said. “The era of Donald Trump shaping the electorate is not over either.”
The most fascinating numbers — with hints about how Democrats could respond — come from a recent internal poll by the National Republican Congressional Committee that’s been circulating among GOP lawmakers and was obtained by The Post. In battleground House districts, 3 in 4 voters agreed with these populist, class-conscious statements: “The power of a few elites and special interests rigs the system against regular people” and “Government is run by the wealthy and big corporations that [are] only looking out for themselves, not us.”
The NRCC survey found voters evenly divided when initially asked about Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal. But support grew by six points, to 56 percent, when respondents were told that Democrats want to pay for this spending “by raising corporate taxes and raising taxes on the wealthiest families.” Yes, a Republican poll found that a Democratic plan to raise taxes was a winner.
That was no outlier. A Post-ABC News poll last month found that 58 percent of Americans support raising the corporate tax rate to the level Biden wants, including 29 percent of Republicans, even after GOP leaders called that a red line they won’t cross.
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle, president of the center-left group Future Majority, shared a poll he commissioned two weeks ago across all 37 congressional districts decided last November by fewer than 5 percentage points. In the survey of 1,213 likely voters, Biden’s approval rating was 48 percent in these battlegrounds, while Trump was viewed favorably by 41 percent. Yet, alarmingly for Democrats, the two parties were statistically tied on which party they preferred.
Riddle’s recent surveys show that most Americans feel as if they are either barely paying their bills or falling behind — and that government does not work well for people such as them. He said Democrats cannot win in 2022 unless they change those perceptions. Passing a big infrastructure bill can go a long way toward convincing swing voters that Democrats are investing in their future, Riddle said, but the most effective approach would be running against political “corruption.” Draining the swamp, or promising to, worked before, after all.
Republicans recognize their vulnerability on this front as they battle Biden’s policies. The New Yorker published audio this spring of a conference call in which a policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plotted strategy with leaders of right-wing groups for stopping the Democrats’ omnibus voting and ethics reform measure. Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Charles Koch-funded advocacy group Stand Together, warned Republicans against engaging in a debate with Democrats over whether the bill “stops billionaires from buying elections.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve found that that is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives,” McKenzie said.
Trump campaigned like a populist, promising to fight for “the forgotten man.” That’s the same term another New Yorker born into privilege — Franklin D. Roosevelt — used 84 years earlier. Instead of pursuing a New Deal, however, Trump governed like a plutocrat.
Now, the Republicans who hope to lead the party in 2024 — including senators such as Ted Cruz (Tex.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) — seek to rebrand themselves as cultural enemies of “woke” billionaires and checks on big corporations, even as GOP leaders block policies that would do just that. Democrats would be wise to highlight the delta between rhetoric and reality — and wiser still to follow the cues from the polling of their opponents.