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The Missing Democratic Economic Message

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin -- July 2016

At every time during the 2016 campaign, not just during the GOP convention, Donald Trump is taking up the vast share of everyone’s attention, but the real definition of this election will probably come next week from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.  There we will learn whether the Democrats find their missing economic message or not.  The answer to this question will likely determine the outcome in November.  


After badly losing 2014 election, nearly every analysis of the 2014 debacle by the Democratic Party’s leading pollsters and campaign strategists pointed to the Democratic Party’s lack of an economic message.  Democrats revel in charging that Republicans have not heeded the recommendations of their party’s “autopsy” of the 2012 loss, but Democrats are just as guilty of not heeding their own party’s expert analysis of their 2014 drubbing. 


After the 2014 election Celinda Lake, Mark Mellman, Stan Greenberg and Democracy Corps, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, Senator Chuck Schumer, and William Galston all wrote that the Democrats got clobbered in 2014 because they had not developed an effective economic message to give middle class voters a reason to believe their lives would be meaningfully better if they elected Democrats.  All warned that the Democrats had better fix this before the 2016 race.  Well, we are in the middle of 2016 and Hillary Clinton needs to solve a problem not entirely of her own making.  The Democratic Party has not had a clearly articulated answer to voters’ economic anxieties since Bill Clinton left the White House.


What is needed is not another 10-point economic plan, but rather a 10-word explanation of the logic behind the plan’s success.  In marketing the classic example is the slogan “Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath,” which defines the problem and explains the logic behind the solution in just 8 words.  Ronald Reagan had just such a simple economic plan with his promise to grow the economy by cutting red tape and taxes that were binding American business. 


Bill Clinton promised to level the playing field so American workers could compete and win in the international marketplace.  After that, Al Gore and John Kerry lost two close elections, and Barack Obama won two elections, all without a clear and compelling economic message.  (Obama did not have an economic message in 2012 until Bill Clinton gave him a boost in a primetime speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.)


In 2016 Donald Trump has all but abandoned the formula all Republicans have employed since Ronald Reagan – cutting taxes and regulations -- in favor of an economic message that comes close to passing the Listerine test.  Trump is promising to create better jobs by renegotiating stupid currency and trade deals that have been a disaster for American workers.  Even in polls where Trump trails Clinton in voter preference, he has nonetheless been leading Clinton on questions of who would be best for the economy. 


The June NBC News Wall Street Journal Poll had Clinton in the lead by the same 5 points as their July Poll (46% to 41% in both surveys), but in the June survey Clinton trails the businessman and reality TV star by 10 points on the question of who would be best at dealing with the economy 37% to 47%.  If Hillary Clinton with all her staff and consultants cannot distill an economic message with simple logic, that is effective in reaching middle class voters and instilling confidence that better jobs and opportunities are on the horizon, then this contest will remain far too close for comfort.


This is not a marketing or messaging problem, this is a product problem.  For a political party the product can be boiled down to just one thing, and the one thing is answers to voters’ most pressing problems.  After not just years, but decades of wage stagnation, many American feel that they are failing to hold on to the middle-class economic security they expected to pass on to their children.  The Democrats need a better answer to this issue than they had in 2014 when they promised over and over again to raise the minimum wage, invest in infrastructure, and make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.  Either voters did not see a connection between those policies and their lives, or as Mark Mellman argued, they did not trust that the Democrats could get effective policies enacted. 


Looking at the negative side of this campaign, many pundits reach the facile analysis that Trump wants this contest to be a referendum on Hillary Clinton and Clinton wants this to be a referendum on Donald Trump.  We fear this misses the point and the election could shape up as a referendum on Washington.  Trump’s closing argument is likely to be: If you think Washington has answers to your problems vote for her, but if you think Washington needs fundamental change vote for me.  Hillary Clinton needs to do what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both able to do, make people believe she has real answers to their concerns that will make their lives better. 


Right here is where you might expect to see our recommendation for the Democrats’ best economic message – but we are not going to offer another formulation here.  (We have discussed the missing Democratic economic message many times and our latest formulation is here.)   This has to come from Hillary and her campaign.  Hillary’s website has position papers and she has given speeches that let us know they have been working with the banners America needs a raise (with an 8 point-plan) and An economy that works for everyone not just those at the top (with a 5-point plan). 


These are good workable phrases.  The question is can they attach a compelling logic to them so that people say, “Yes, I see how that would work.”  The test is whether in the fall all of Clinton’s supporters and potential supporters have an answer to the question, “What will Hillary do to get the economy moving and help the middle class?”  If she passes this test, she could sail to a big win in November.  If not, the race will stay far too close all the way to the end. 

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