When it comes to the economy, Democrats' hearts are in the right place, but our messaging strategy is sloppy and fails to resonate with voters. Take for instance last week's article in The Hill on how Democratic congressional leaders are betting on the minimum wage being at the forefront of the party's 2016 platform.
Democrats are doubling down on their push for a national minimum wage hike ahead of the 2016 presidential election, as they look to make a campaign issue of an effort that met a stinging legislative defeat last year.
On the surface, this approach seems to make sense from both a political and policy perspective. Polling generally shows raising the minimum wage to be extremely popular with voters and economists are increasingly concerned about the threat of inequality to working families. So it would seem counter-intuitive for Republicans to be earning higher marks with voters when it comes to the economy. But that's exactly what's happening.
Why? Three reasons:
We're Misreading the Polling Data. From raising the minimum wage to paid maternity leave, Democrats' legislative priorities are popular with voters. When voters are asked whether they approve/disapprove of a policy initiative, Democratic ideas tend to fare well. But this is a one-dimensional and overly simplistic analysis of the polling data.While voters support key Democratic economic policies, multi-dimensional polling shows that they also believe they do not address practical needs. As the chart below from the Beyond the Beltway study by BSG and SKDKnickerbocker indicates, while 50% of voters believe in requiring paid maternity leave, only 35% believe it would benefit them personally. Similarly, 62% believe that raising the minimum wage will help the economy, but only 51% say it would help them or their family. In other words, a majority of voters believe that some key Democratic initiatives are good on paper, but that they are largely not helpful to them or their families.
Voters: Growth > Inequality. Voters fundamentally want candidates who will focus on economic growth, rather than addressing inequality - and voters perceive initiatives like raising the minimum wage as being more closely tied to the latter. Two recent data points confirm this:
According to the latest NBC / WSJ poll, by a 2:1 margin, voters are more worried about how middle class families can get ahead financially than inequality.
The findings from the December 2014 Beyond the Beltway study by Benenson Strategy Group and SKDKnickerbocker showed 60% of likely 2016 voters said they would rather the next president focus on growing the economy compared to 40% who said addressing economic fairness.
Arguing Against Our Own Economy. By any objective measure, the economy has made tremendous progress since 2009. But by honing in on inequality, Democrats are not only failing to resonate with voters' main concern with the economy (upward mobility), they are also arguing against themselves. Polls are showing that voters no longer hold the previous president or Republicans responsible for the state of the economy; President Obama and the Democratic Party now bears that responsibility. So by following the misguided advice of some strategists who have advocated not talking about the economy (or worse, talking it down), Democrats are not only directing public frustrations at themselves.
The 2016 election is still a year and a half away, and there are promising signs that at least some in Congress understand that raising the minimum wage is good public policy, but it is not, on its own, an economic plan for growth nor does it address voters' top priority: achieving economic opportunities for middle and working class families. However, the polling does show that growth initiatives that fit squarely within the Democratic agenda, such as a middle class tax cut and keeping jobs from being shipped overseas, are highly rated by voters—both as abstract legislative proposals and as practical plans to help families.
It's past time for Democrats to recalibrate their message. Our hearts may be in the right place and raising the minimum wage and addressing inequality are important, but our message is missing the mark. If we continue to misread the polls and emphasize the wrong economic plans, come 2016 voters will reward Republicans at the ballot box.