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. The party is defending 10 Senate seats in states that Trump won and needs to flip 24 House seats to take control of that chamber.
The research, conducted by private firms and for Democratic campaign arms, is rarely made public but was described to POLITICO in interviews with a dozen top operatives who’ve been analyzing the results coming in.
“If that’s the attitude that’s driving the Democratic Party, we’re going to drive right into the ocean,” said Anson Kaye, a strategist at media firm GMMB who worked on the Obama and Clinton campaigns and is in conversations with potential clients for next year.
Worse news, they worry: Many of the ideas party leaders have latched onto in an attempt to appeal to their lost voters — free college tuition, raising the minimum wage to $15, even Medicare for all — test poorly among voters outside the base. The people in these polls and focus groups tend to see those proposals as empty promises, at best.
Pollsters are shocked by how many voters describe themselves as “exhausted” by the constant chaos surrounding Trump, and they find that there’s strong support for a Congress that provides a check on him rather than voting for his agenda most of the time. But he is still viewed as an outsider shaking up the system, which people in the various surveys say they like, and which Democrats don’t stack up well against.
“People do think he’s bringing about change, so it’s hard to say he hasn’t kept his promises,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
In focus groups, most participants say they’re still impressed with Trump’s business background and tend to give him credit for the improving economy. The window is closing, but they’re still inclined to give him a chance to succeed. More than that, no single Democratic attack on the president is sticking — not on his temperament, his lack of accomplishments or the deals he’s touted that have turned out to be less than advertised, like the president’s claim that he would keep Carrier from shutting down its Indianapolis plant and moving production to Mexico.
Voters are also generally unimpressed by claims that Trump exaggerates or lies, and they don’t see the ongoing Russia investigation adding up to much.
“There are a number of things that are raising questions in voters’ minds against him,” said Matt Canter, who’s been conducting focus groups for Global Strategy Group in swing states. “They’re all raising questions, but we still have to weave it into one succinct narrative about his presidency.”
Stop, Democratic operatives urge voters, assuming that what they think is morally right is the best politics. A case in point is Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville. The president’s equivocation on neo-Nazis was not as much of a political problem as his opponents want to believe, Democratic operatives say, and shifting the debate to whether or not to remove Confederate monuments largely worked for him.
“He is the president. The assessment that voters will make is, is he a good one or not? While Democrats like me have come to conclusions on that question, most of the voters who will decide future elections have not,” Canter said.
Many of the proposals Democrats are pushing fall flat in focus groups and polling.
The call for free college tuition fosters both resentment at ivory tower elitism and regret from people who have degrees but are now buried under debt. Many voters see “free” as a lie — either they’ll end up paying for tuition some other way, or worse, they’ll be paying the tuition of someone else who’ll be getting a degree for free.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Gerstein Bocian Agne Strategies conducted online polling of 1,000 Democrats and 1,000 swing voters across 52 swing districts for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Their advice to candidates afterward: Drop the talk of free college. Instead, the firms urged Democrats to emphasize making college more affordable and reducing debt, as well as job skills training, according to an internal DCCC memo.
“When Democrats go and talk to working-class voters, we think talking to them about how we can help their children go to college, they have a better life, is great,” said Ali Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC, which supports Democratic House candidates. “They are not interested. … It’s a problem when you have a growing bloc in the electorate think that college is not good, and they actually disdain folks that go to college.”
Medicare-for-all tests better, but it, too, generates suspicion. The challenge is that most voters in focus groups believe it’s a pipe dream — they ask who will pay for it and suspect it will lead to a government takeover of health care — and therefore wonder whether the politicians talking to them about it are being less than forthright, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders is scheduled to release a single-payer bill on Wednesday, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tammy Baldwin among those joining him.
Health care is one bright spot for Democrats. Obamacare is less unpopular than it used to be, and voters generally want the law to be repaired. Data also show that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on the issue: Voters rated Trump and Democrats about equally on health care at the start of his term, but Democrats now have a large double-digit lead, according to DCCC polling.
But attacking Republicans on the issue is tricky. The specifics of GOP alternatives are unpopular, but most voters don’t realize Republicans had a plan, so it’s hard to persuade them to care about the details of something that never came to be.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 is as unpopular as it was when the Obama White House tried to make it Democrats’ rallying cry in the 2014 midterms. Participants in battleground-state focus groups said they see that rate as relatively high and the issue in general as being mostly about redistributing money to the poor.
The DCCC memo urges candidates instead to talk about a “living wage,” or to rail against outsourcing jobs.
“What you’re seeing is this thing that Democrats cannot seem to figure out — this notion that somehow if we just put the words together correctly that’ll be the winning message and we’ll win,” Kaye said. “That is the opposite of how the electorate is behaving.”
On immigration and trade, voters remain largely aligned with Trump. Data show that voters believe that the economy is moving in the right direction and resent Democrats attacking its progress.
Late last month, Democratic pollster Peter Hart ran a 12-person focus group in Pittsburgh that shocked him for how quickly and decisively it turned against the president. But he came away wary of Democrats who take that as evidence that attacking Trump will win them elections — even as DCCC and other polling shows voters are turned off by members of Congress who vote with the president 90 percent of the time or more.
“People would like more of a sense of reassurance … than we’ve had so far,” Hart said. “For the Democrats, part of that is recognizing that it’s not that there’s an overwhelming agenda item on the part of the American public — it’s not the economy or health care or some single issue — but it is the sense that somehow things are very out of sorts, and it touches so many different issues.”
That’s the main difference between 2018 and 2006, when Democrats’ strategy primarily consisted of running against an unpopular president, George W. Bush, and an unpopular war.
“It may have worked then,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, the DCCC chair in the 2012 and 2014 cycles and the leader of messaging for House Democrats last year. “I’m not sure it’s going to work now, because the middle class is clamoring for help. Just saying we’re not Trump isn’t going to help.”
More and more, Democratic operatives are gravitating toward pushing for an argument that Trump is just out to make his rich friends richer, at the expense of everyone else. They believe they could include all sorts of attacks on his decisions under that umbrella, from stripping regulations on credit cards to trying to end Obamacare to pushing for corporate tax breaks.
DCCC polling showed that on the question of who “fights for people like me,” Trump and Democrats were split at 50 percent each in February but that Democrats are now ahead by 17 points.
“Everything is a trade-off,” said Guy Cecil, reflecting polling done by his Priorities USA super PAC. Republicans “want to give tax cuts to the rich, and they want to screw the rest of us. This is a quintessential question of whose side are you on.”
Bill Burton, a former Obama aide now at SKDKnickerbocker, said he’s worried Democrats are still not making a convincing argument on economic issues.
But he sees some cause for optimism.
“The question has to be what counts as working — the guy’s approval ratings are in the mid-30s,” Burton said of Trump. “So the other way of looking at this is, everything is working.”