Democrats plot middle-class message to retake economic high ground
The secret slide deck started circulating in June, intended as a wake-up call to top Democrats in Congress, the White House and state capitals across the country about a dangerous flaw in the Democratic brand.
Based on six months of polling and focus groups, the document showed the party losing badly to Republicans on the most important single issue of voters: the economy. Voters said Democrats focused too much on “cultural and social issues” and not enough on pocketbook issues. The message of “economic fairness” was a loser compared with “growing the economy,” a regular GOP refrain.
“Challenge is one of volume and message clarity,” reads the opening slide of a presentation that has now been seen by hundreds of party leaders and activists. “Democrats should anchor your economic message around ‘growing the middle class.’”
The effect was almost immediate. Days after their briefings, leaders in the House and Senate, including House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), started sneaking “growing the middle class” into social media posts and statements. President Biden, who had long embraced a “grow the middle class” mantra, returned to it with a June speech meant to rebrand his policy approach as “Bidenomics.”
The behind-the-scenes attempt at a political rebranding is just one of several efforts, as Democrats wrestle with the vulnerabilities they expect in next year’s presidential election. Along with concerns about Biden’s age and worries about lower turnout among the urban base, Democrats see the party’s faded economic approval as a top concern.
A Washington Post-ABC poll in May found that 54 percent of voters said Trump had done a better job handling the economy than Biden, compared with 36 percent who sided with Biden. By contrast, when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, he was running closer to even with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, on handling the economy.
“It’s clear Democrats are getting the balance wrong about actually connecting with voters on their most important issue,” said Navin Nayak, the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s president who led the research effort behind the June presentation, which continues to be briefed to party insiders. “The outcome we are offering people is not just a transactional one. It is an emotional one of having a little more security and being a little less stressed.”
Before the midterm elections, Nayak teamed up with Anita Dunn, now a senior White House adviser, on a similar polling and research effort that led Democrats to focus their attacks last year on “extremist MAGA Republicans.” The tactic was widely adopted, turning a nickname for adherents of Trump’s Make America Great Again movement into a shorthanded drag on Republican candidates.
In recent months, Democrats have allowed themselves to become more optimistic about the larger political winds shifting in their direction. Inflation has eased to below 3 percent from 9 percent last year, the economy grew at 2.4 percent in the second quarter and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said Wednesday that his staff no longer forecast a recession in the United States in the coming months. A key marker of voter anxiety that the Obama reelection campaign focused on — real median household income — may also be turning a corner, after multiple years of declines because of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation.
But there is broad agreement inside the party that elected officials cannot just rely on macroeconomic forces to change their fortunes.
“The economy is the only major issue where Republicans are connecting with voters, and if we can take that away from them, we are going to have a very good election next year,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said. He has been offering Democrats a separate presentation encouraging them to talk about the relative performance of the U.S. economy under Republican and Democratic governance.
Republicans, for their part, are determined to maintain the advantage over Democrats. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a 2024 presidential contender who has recently shaken up his campaign staff, has planned a major economic policy speech Monday in New Hampshire.
“There is no way to message their way out of this — under Biden and Democrat leadership, prices and interest rates are sky high while real wages and savings are down,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Bidenomics means you pay more to get less, which is why voters will choose Republicans and our common sense, jobs and family-first agenda in 2024.”
The strategists working for CAP Action Fund, including pollsters for the Global Strategy Group and Hart Research, say a focus on middle-class growth will contrast well with the traditional Republican refrain of cutting taxes, reducing regulations and shrinking the size of government.
But they also uncovered some surprising results, including a shifting understanding of the notion of “the middle class,” a term that has long been aspirational for working-class and low-income voters, while being descriptive for others.
“For decades, the aspirational goals of buying a home and going to college were critical parts of that picture. And now the story of the middle class is really determined by struggle and determined by how much money you have at the end of the month,” said Matt Canter, a partner at Global Strategy Group.
That led the group to conclude that the middle class is more a descriptor of an emotional state, defined by notions like security, peace of mind and disposable income. Notions of stability and security, the researchers found, were more important to voters than aspirational ideas like opportunity or prosperity.
“It’s a recognition that the economy and people’s economic experiences have changed dramatically over the last decades,” Canter said.
A line about how Democrats believe “that we grow the economy by building a strong middle class” tested the best during the project in moving voters’ opinions of Democrats. A message about creating stability so the economy can grow and a message about how the government should “have your back” tested less well.
Another Democratic firm, Navigator Research, has also been testing messages that Democrats can use to reclaim some of their standing on economic issues — including how Biden has helped improve the affordability of health care, invested in infrastructure and lowered costs for families.
By contrast, Navigator found that comparing the U.S. economic performance with other countries, messages about how Biden has delivered for historically disadvantaged groups and details of the total number of new jobs created are less effective.
The key is to focus on how the policies are directly impacting voters. “It’s not the economy stupid. It’s your economy stupid,” said Jesse Ferguson, who works on the Navigator polling project.
The CAP Action Fund’s project aims create a broader frame about middle-class growth that can encompass the more specific policies that Biden plans to sell over the coming months. That branding project has attracted lots of enthusiasm.
The phrase “growing the middle class” showed up seven times in the April Nexis database of news and transcripts and five times in May. Then it jumped to 82 times in June and 117 times through the first 26 days of July. A Post analysis of social media posts, podcasts and other public statements from high-profile liberal politicians and influencers found a similar jump in the use variations of the phrase, with the frequency doubling between June and July.
That is because of politicians like Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), the chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, who used a variation of the phrase in a July 20 appearance on MSNBC. House Democrats have been told to mention the economy more frequently in their communications with voters, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
“Growing the middle class isn’t a message frame. It is the core of what we believe as Democrats,” Neguse said in an interview Thursday. “There is more that we can certainly do as a party in talking about the economy. It isn’t a question about the message that is being communicated as much as ensuring that we are communicating it.”