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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Greenberg and Zdunkewicz: Roosevelt Institute’s election night survey revealed unheard winning, bold economic agenda

The following Democracy Corps memo, written by Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz  for The Roosevelt Institute, is cross-posted from a DCorps release:

Last week, the American people were determined to vote for change – change that would crash the dominance of special interests over government and bring bold economic policies so the economy would work for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected. That narrative underlines why Donald Trump received an audience and why he is now the president-elect.(1)

It does not explain, however, why Hillary Clinton failed to win the presidency on November 8th. The Comey letter re-opened the vote decision for some people and critically impacted the race, but the Clinton campaign moved from running on change to running on continuity. She fully articulated an economic change message throughout the three debates and offered her plans for change, but after the Comey F.B.I. letter, the campaign no longer spoke of change, the economy and her bold plans for the future. In the final weeks, the Clinton campaign conceded the economy and change to Trump, while seeking to make him personally unacceptable. Frustratingly, it closed the campaign appealing for unity, promising to promote opportunity and to “build on the progress” of the Obama presidency. That is why key groups of voters moved to Trump in the Rust Belt and why the turnout of many base groups was so disappointing in the end.

Understanding what really happened allows one to see how ready voters were to vote for a “rewrite the rules” economic message, how white working class women stuck with Clinton until she abandoned that message, and how much the new Rising American Electorate – from millennials to unmarried women to minority voters – required an economic change offer, not identity politics, to stay fulling engaged.

Clinton’s incomplete consolidation of Democrats and Sanders voters and failure to energize African Americans, unmarried women and millennials was known at these late decision points. Public polls a week before the election showed that white working class women were starting to pull away from Clinton and that the white working class men who favored Trump were even more determined to vote. But we did not know that the Clinton campaign would close the election by appealing to unity and group identity, experience and continuity and attacking Trump as divisive – and not the economy, change and the future.

Of course there are many head winds in an election like this, but Hillary Clinton and her campaign did impressively put herself into a clear and decisive lead when she stated her “mission” was building an economy that worked for all, not just those at the top – as she did at her convention and through the three debates in mid-October. She mocked Trump’s trickle-down economics on steroids. She condemned corporate irresponsibility and promised to battle for middle class families and she spoke passionately about an ambitious Roosevelt Institute-inspired economic agenda to “rewrite the rules” of the economy.(2)

Her failure at the very end – for the reasons we will discuss – should not obscure that her embracing that perspective put her in a strong position. She was starting to consolidate Democrats behind her, including those who opposed her in the primary. She was staring to win big margins with unmarried women and was improving with millennials. She held a strong position with women college graduates. Critically, she was nearly tied with white working class women who had gone for Mitt Romney by 19 points – and that support had proved resilient in the race with Trump.

And thus it should not be surprising that the electorate that put Donald Trump in the White House today wants bold, not incremental change. This is a country that still wants deep and long- term investments in America’s infrastructure and is ready to invest in our under-served communities. It wants to limit corporate power that reduces competition and innovation and reform trade, starting with a dramatic ability to prosecute and enforce trade laws.

Economic change election and the working class vote

Throughout this election cycle, polling conducted on behalf of the Roosevelt Institute and others revealed the potential of a “rewrite the rules” narrative, message and bold policy agenda to win broad and deep public support. It fit the times where voters wanted change and were tired of corporate interests dominating politics at the expense of the middle class.

It was also appealing to swing groups including white college graduates and white working class women. True, Trump always enjoyed big margins among the white working class men who identified with him, and they turned out for him early and in growing numbers. But there were points where Clinton was outperforming Obama with white working class women. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had the lead narrowing to 4-points before moving sharply away a week before the election.

(See chart here)
The data does not support that idea that the white working class was inevitably lost, as polls showed fairly resilient support with white working class women, until the Clinton campaign stopped talking about economic change and asked people to vote for unity, temperament and experience and to continue on President Obama’s progress. As we shall see, both the Democratic base and white working class voters are struggling economically and would demand change in their own ways.

After the debates, Democracy Corps tested a message from Democratic candidates attacking Trump for his extreme attitudes and behavior versus a Democratic candidate demanding big economic changes and attacking their opponent for supporting for trickle-down and protecting corporate special interests. We found that the tough economic message performed dramatically better in consolidating millennials, white unmarried women and white working class women.

(See chart here)

Instead of continuing the economic contrast that was so successful in the debates, the Clinton campaign chose to run ads disqualifying Trump on temperament, his capacity to handle the nuclear codes, and his vulgar treatment of women. They did not see earned media or run an ad on her plans for change. When it came to her positive closing argument, the Clinton camp reaffirmed shared values and called for greater unity and opportunity for everyone. She offered no economic content. She called for unity after a divisive election.

Similarly, President Obama’s closing argument while stumping for Clinton was out of touch with an electorate desperate for change. He touted the economic recovery under his leadership and argued that Hillary Clinton had the experience to build on his progress: “We’ve seen America turn recession into recovery. Our businesses create 15.5 million new jobs. Putting more people back to work than all the other advanced economies combined. A resurgent auto industry has led the fastest manufacturing growth since another Clinton was President. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance. Those are just the facts. And with just one more day to go, we now have the chance to elect a 45th President who will build on our progress.”

(See chart here)

At the same time, Trump was campaigning to “drain the swamp,” attacking the Clintons for their disastrous trade deals and promising big infrastructure investment to create jobs. That pushed rural and small town white working class men to turnout in huge numbers and finally pushed the white working class women to support Trump in impressive numbers.

A critical 11 percent of voters decided their vote in the final week, and they broke for Trump by 50 to 36 percent. The new American majority that would form 55 percent of the electorate heard no message of change and thus, did not fully consolidate behind Clinton or turnout.

The result: experience and temperament to Clinton; economy and change to Trump

It should not be surprising that Clinton had a weaker hand on Election Day. The arguments that won Clinton support were her experience, her temperament and suitability to serve as Commander in Chief, her capacity to govern for Americans of all backgrounds and her support for women on equal pay, the right to choose and funding Planned Parenthood. Her plans to grow the economy by taxing the rich and investing in the middle class were overshadowed and only rank fifth in voter attention.

The attacks on Trump that registered among those who voted for Clinton and considered her concerned the hateful things he has said about vulnerable minority groups, his disrespect for women, and his inability to handle the nuclear codes given his thin skin. His plans to cut taxes on the rich, likely himself, and his refusal to release his tax returns scored even lower, and were not elevated enough to make an impression on voters. That was the attack that proved the strongest in the post-debate research and that moved Clinton ahead of Trump on the economy.

(See charts here)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was finishing with a clear message about cleaning-up the political system, attacking Clinton as a tool of big business and Wall Street, and offering a reprieve from bad trade deals that cost American jobs and greater public investment. For those who voted for – or considered – Trump, his vow to repeal Obamacare and keep liberals off the Supreme Court were the most important reasons to cast their ballots. But nearly as important were his economic plans and how his business success prepared him to create jobs.

The economic context

To understand why failing to close on a bold plan to “rewrite the rules” of the economy was so deadly, you must understand the economic context. Voters are on the edge financially, struggling to earn enough to make ends meet. The Clinton campaign’s close must have been seen as clueless.

A majority of voters say jobs don’t pay enough to live on and it is a struggle to meet everyday expenses. And it is the broad new majority of voters who belong in the progressive base dealing with these economic anxieties, not just the often discussed white working class. If faced with a sudden, unexpected $500 expense, nearly four-in-ten voters say they would not be able to handle it, including a majority of unmarried women and large numbers of minorities, millennials and the white working class.

Compounding their frustrations is the belief shared by two-thirds of voters that “people in power haven’t paid much attention to what I worry about.” That includes 80 percent of white working class men, 69 percent of white working class women, and 63 percent of the Rising American Electorate of unmarried women, millennials and minorities.

The country is also strikingly anti-corporate in their mood, and are particularly dissatisfied with their leaders – only two-in-ten have a favorable opinion of CEOs of large businesses and as you will see below, they are very supportive of policies aimed at changing their behavior.

All of this is why voters say by a two-to-one margin they are looking for bold economic changes to shift the balance of power and rewrite the rules of the economy over incremental changes.

(See chart here)

The unheard economic agenda

We tested the economic policies Secretary Clinton put forward and spoke about at various times in her campaign, in major economic speeches and elaborated on in the debates. In the Election night survey, voters thought these should be a high priority for the next President. These include proposals to raise taxes on the richest to invest in the middle class, to change corporate governance, raise incomes and create more good paying jobs, invest in an infrastructure jobs program, and improve education at all levels.

Remember, these were top of mind policies when Clinton made her biggest gains compared to Trump on who is for the middle class, better on the economy, and willing to take on special interests.

However, because the Clinton campaign went silent on the economy, voters reported not having heard of what she had proposed in key areas of reform and job creating. Voters did hear that she wanted to tax the wealthiest to make investments to help the middle class and of her plans to make college debt free and affordable. Those were important and made voters much more likely to support Clinton.

(See chart here)

But her plans for financial reform were not heard by nearly half of voters, one-third did not recall hearing her plans for an infrastructure jobs program, and one-quarter did not recall hearing her plans to raise income or reform corporate governance. Had they heard, many reported they would be much more likely to support Clinton.

These are policies that the Roosevelt Institute has said would have a real impact in promoting broad-based economic growth and addressing income inequality – and a policy agenda that Clinton had championed. Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign not ending with its economic offer allowed Trump’s to get heard instead.

(See chart here)

The bold economic agenda for the future

You cannot take this election as anything but a mandate for bold economic changes to rewrite the rules of the economy. And despite Donald Trump’s victory, voters are looking for the progressive policies like those advocated by the Roosevelt Institute.

We asked voters on election night how they would feel about the president-elect if they were to suggest economic reforms including large scale public investment, investing in under-served communities, fostering better markets, reforming trade policies, and changing corporate governance so corporations make better decisions. These are all policies that will have a significant positive impact on the economy and combat inequality, as detailed in Roosevelt’s Rewrite the Rules report. As you can see below, there is tremendous support for a president-elect who puts forward such bold policies.

(See chart here)

More impressively, Clinton voters, Trump voters, college educated voters and the white working class all support these policies. This is an agenda that will not just grow the economy and make strides towards relieving inequality, but could create winning coalitions for progressives in the future.


(1) This survey took place Monday, November 7 – Wednesday November 9, 2016 among 1,300 voters or (on Monday only) those with a high stated intention of voting in 2016. In addition to a 900 voter base sample, oversamples of 200 Rising American Electorate voters (unmarried women, minorities and millennials) and 200 battleground state voters (AZ, FL, OH, IA, NC, NV, NH, PA, VA, WI) were included. Margin of error for the full sample is +/-3.27 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Of the 1,300 respondents, 65 percent were interviewed via cell phone in order to accurately sample the American electorate.

(2) The Roosevelt Institute is a non-partisan organization. In 2015, the Institute released a report with a bold economic argument and agenda titled, Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy. Rewriting the Rules was promoted widely, including to all presidential candidates of both major parties. The Institute has also released a stream of opinion research — to that same audience and beyond — to demonstrate popular support for this kind of agenda. This final post-election survey was designed to test how the message was utilized or ultimately performed.

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