What really matters as we think about the upcoming election? “The economy, stupid.” That’s how campaign strategist James Carville put it in 1992 when he was advising the Clinton campaign about what messages to focus on. Clearly, President Trump is also focused on the economy, calling ours the best it’s ever been, and warning voters that their new-found prosperity will come to a halt if a Democrat wins the White House.
So, is the economy good or not? Well, it depends on who you ask. Most leading indicators are positive: In January, 225,000 jobs were added to the economy, the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, GDP growth was 2.1 percent, consumer confidence was high, building permits were up, interest rates were stable, and the stock market was on its way to hitting 30,000 — at least until the recent coronavirus selloff. On the other hand, economists are starting to worry, and many Americans are working multiple jobs and taking out high-interest online installment loans just to make ends meet. What really matters for November is not just the economy as an abstract concept or a series of metrics, but how actual Americans feel about it.
I asked my panel of 500 voters about the economy, just days before the coronavirus news came out. At that time, they all had similar answers to the following seven statements. How would you answer them? True or false?
- I am personally experiencing the benefits of a good economy.
- Millionaires should pay more in taxes.
- I believe I pay my fair share of taxes.
- Amazon should pay more in taxes.
- I worry about how large the US deficit is.
- The economy is only working for big corporations and the rich.
- My health care costs have gone up significantly in the last year.
More than 85 percent of the respondents, from all along the political spectrum, gave the same answer to these questions. They responded “true” to all of the questions above except the last two, which 85 percent said were false.
It’s striking how most people report they are benefiting from the current economy. Phil, a Republican from Boise, Idaho, reports that “My pay is up, my retirement funds are looking good, and my home value is up. And our local economy is doing great, with tons of jobs available for all who are looking for work.” Alexis, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, adds, “In State College, the economy is booming. There’s construction on three new luxury high-rise apartment buildings and new stores seem to be popping up every week, with ads for jobs at nearly every store.” And even Diana, a Republican from Iowa who lives near the poverty level, sees the benefits. She said, “For me, some of my monthly medical supplies went noticeably down last year. Some food prices went down and, for a while, gas prices were down. Lots of sales seem to be going on so when and if I buy items, I get them at a lower rate.”
Deficits do weigh on voters. Andrew, an independent from Wisconsin, said, “I was disappointed when the Republicans, the party that boasts about being fiscally responsible, increased our deficit and therefore the rate at which the national debt is increasing.” Andrew said he’s also concerned because he believes we are borrowing from China to finance the deficit. “It seems as though we are trying to just hand superpower status to China.”
And there is barely a voter on my panel who thinks they should pay more in taxes.
On the other hand, Republicans and Democrats are split on three of the true/false questions.
- I worry that the economy will take a bad turn in the next nine months.
- I give former President Obama much of the credit for the good economy.
- Income inequality is a huge problem in the United States.
Democrats are more concerned about the future, credit Obama for at least part of the good economy, and believe that income inequality is a massive problem. Republicans tend to be bullish on the future (as long as Trump stays in office), give Trump full credit for the current economy, and are indifferent to the gap between the rich and the poor.
“My IRA account has been growing with the trajectory of the stock market," said Catherine, a Democrat from Massachusetts, “but I am afraid to invest for the long-term because I fear volatility and market collapse.” Lawrence, a Democrat from Boston, added, “We are creating a nation of renters, who live paycheck to paycheck, with little saved for retirement, and unable to pay a major emergency expense. Income inequality is a huge problem, and it simmers below the surface of our economy and our society.”
Republicans are more optimistic, and they believe that income inequality is solvable. Peter, from Illinois, doesn’t see wealth as a zero-sum game. “As the 1 percent get richer, it doesn’t mean they are taking it from the pockets of the bottom 50 percent.”
This kind of voter sentiment raises a key issue for Democrats. In the absence of a recession or a precipitous drop in the stock market, most electoral models, such as those by Moody’s analytics, predict a Trump victory. Clearly, if the stock market downturn from the coronavirus continues, all bets could be off. For now, Democrats are challenged to respond in a compelling way to a president whose message is: You may not like me, but you have to vote for me because if you elect the other guys, say goodbye to the economy you love!
What won’t work in a general election is to communicate that the economy is bad or that it is working for only those at the top, because this just does not match with the experience of most voters. Even more, a message about completely overhauling our health care system — or dramatically increasing taxes to pay for more entitlements — is unlikely to generate significant support.
What could resonate? Democrats could win, not by denying that we have a robust economy, but by showing how our good economy could be even better if rich individuals and corporations paid their fair share, just as everyday Americans do — or that our good economy won’t last forever, as people borrow too much at high interest rates, and pay more and more for rent. They could also point out how dependent our good economy is on a healthy global economy — with strong markets for American products and reliable sources of vital raw materials and supplies, and with a worldwide commitment to working together on everything from disease to climate issues.
Clearly a continued coronavirus scare, with its negative impact on the economy, potentially eliminates Trump’s most powerful talking point. And above and beyond the economy is the critical reminder that we are all experiencing how interconnected our world is — an important talking point for the Democrats.
No matter what, it’s clear that when it comes to the economy, the Democrats have not yet created a message — or a plan — that will motivate voters to shift how they think about their pocketbooks. Perception is everything, and right now, if it’s the economy, stupid, it’s time for some candidate to get smart.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html