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How to Fix the Democrats’ Economic Message

Part 1 – What Happened in 2016

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin -- December 2016

Democrats have a very strong substantive case to make to voters on the economy, and a long list of specific popular policies.  The Republican theory that tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks spur growth has been proven wrong several times over.  For decades, the pattern has been Republican presidents break the economy and Democratic presidents fix it back up again.  Yet for reasons discussed in this series of posts, voters do not have greater confidence in Democrats than Republicans.  Since 2012, Democrats have not held a sustained advantage on the survey questions that ask voters which party they trust to get the economy moving and create good jobs. 


We Democrats have not had a compelling economic message for many years, and that is why we have been losing power at all levels of government across most of the land.  If having a compelling response to the top concern of voters is a priority, then Democrats need to commit real attention, talent, and resources to a sustained process for developing a more effective economic message heading into the 2018 election.   

Who Failed to Read Their Own “Autopsy?”


Just after the election, nearly every Democratic Party leader, pollster, and political strategist agreed we Democrats lost because we did not articulate a compelling economic message.  The trouble is, we are now talking about the 2014 midterm election, where Democrats got trounced.  And yet somehow, we reached the end of the 2016 election, and many of the same commentators are again saying we failed to articulate a compelling economic message.  The burning question right now is: how do we avoid getting to end of the 2018 midterm election with the same problem still unaddressed?


First, let us say we know Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump, and that had another 100,000 votes or so (a very small percentage of the total votes cast) shifted from California to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, we would be working to confirm Clinton’s cabinet picks.  Horse hockey!  We do not remember any Democrats calling for an end to the Electoral College system when most people believed the “Blue Wall” of states that had voted for the Democrat in six successive elections meant Democrats had an “Electoral College lock.”


Democrats like to selectively choose statistics to say we have won six of the last seven popular votes for president, but this counts three very close elections (2000, 2004, and 2016) and leaves out the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 where Democrats came up very far short.  It is far more accurate to say we have lost three out of the last four elections (2010, 2014 and 2016).  Our problems only grow worse the deeper you go on the ballot.  We will leave it to other writers to detail the number of Senate seats, House seats, Governors mansions, and state legislative seats we have lost since the 2008 high water mark.  The story is just too depressing.  But now we are facing another midterm election in 2018 and then heading into the 2020 Census, after which the party in control of state government will get to draw new congressional districts.  Unless we can reverse recent trends, Democratic weakness in state capitols will be locked in to the make-up of the U. S. Congress for another decade.


There are many things the Democrats need to do to reverse this decline.  One of the most important is to develop an economic message that connects with voters and helps them understand how democrats plan to increase economic activity, create good jobs and increase wages.  We did not have a clear message in 2016, or 2014, or 2010.  And voters have noticed.


The graphic shows how Hillary Clinton trailed Donald Trump on the question of which candidate voters trusted most to get the economy moving and create good jobs for nearly all of the general election contest.  But this is not just a problem with the Clinton campaign.  Democrats have been behind Republicans on this measure in most surveys going back several years.  The similar graphic at the top of our last post showed the data comparing the two parties going all the way back to 2000, and the trend is clear.  Democrats regained a substantial advantage on the economy and jobs as Obama was winning re-election in 2012, but since then the GOP has been leading on this question in most polls.

With all the jobs lost when George W. Bush was president, and all the months of job creation in the Obama years (now even stubborn wages have started increasing) the economic facts are on our side.   The problem is voters are not on our side.   There is a great deal of economic pain, insecurity, and hopelessness we have not been addressing.  And we have not been communicating a clear and compelling message explaining how our policies will lead to the economic security, better wages, and greater opportunity American voters want and deserve.

As this series continues, we will explain the missing element needed to retool our message for the 2018 campaign.       

How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message, Part 2: Progressives Need Offense and Defense – is here.

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