New Poll & Messaging Guidance on Trump and Initial 2020 Strategy
Donald Trump begins the 2020 cycle under water and in trouble. In our survey of registered voters in seven key presidential battleground states, Trump has a negative job rating of 44% approve/56% disapprove. Only 36% of voters say they are inclined to vote for Trump next year, while 47% say they will vote for the Democratic candidate. The true Trump base in these states is small: only 21% say they definitely will vote to reelect Trump – far short of the 33% who say they definitely will vote for the Democrat.
The survey results provide a valuable roadmap for a Democratic victory next year, which requires both expanding the electorate well beyond the 2016 turnout and winning swing voters who have reservations about Trump but are not committed to voting for the Democrat. Democrats do not have the luxury of choosing between mobilization and persuasion, and our research shows that these twin imperatives can go hand in hand.
While some see the economy as a political lifeline for Trump, our research shows that economic issues can become a key asset in helping Democrats achieve their objectives with both mobilization targets and persuasion targets. Focus groups conducted as part of this project show that voters already are well aware of Trump’s temperamental deficiencies; while it is important that voters continue to witness his poor temperament, the focus groups demonstrated there is an opportunity to engage, educate, and ultimately move voters by showing them how Trump has been part of the problem and not part of the solution on the economic issues that concern them the most.
While some aspects of the economy such as the national employment rate are doing reasonably well, the broader economic picture that emerges from our research is much more downbeat:
Very few voters say their incomes are rising faster than the cost of living, while a majority say their incomes are failing behind the cost of living
Large majorities of voters say things are changing for the worse on the cost of healthcare, student debt, and college
Voters say by a large margin that the economic situation for the middle class and working families is changing for the worse, while at the same time they overwhelmingly see the economic situation changing for the better for those who were already wealthy.
Even on the jobs front, only a quarter of voters see things improving in terms of the availability of jobs in their own communities and voters say by a lopsided margin that they place more importance on the failure of wages to keep with the cost of living (including the cost of healthcare) than on the creation of millions of new jobs and the lowering of the unemployment rate.
Our survey shows that voters already believe that Donald Trump cares mostly about helping the wealthy and corporate special interests than helping the average person, but voters are not aware how Trump’s policies have compounded the economic challenges of the middle class. We find there is real power in drawing the link for voters between two of the things they already believe – that Trump looks out primarily for the wealthy and corporate special interests and that working families are falling behind the rising cost of living – by using Trump’s policies and actions as the connective tissue. This reinforces our belief that the bulk of our ongoing communications with voters this year should focus on economic messaging.
Democrats and their progressive allies must address voters’ concerns about jobs, health care, and wages, and draw a direct link to Trump’s economic policies. By focusing on the issues that are close to them and the impact that Trump’s policies are having on their local communities, we can successfully win the argument that Trump’s economy has failed them.
Voters’ opinions on the rising cost of living and Trump’s prioritization of the wealthy over regular people provide a foundation for localized messaging that is persuasive and believable, but will rarely be communicated by the media that is focused on developing scandals and Trump’s daily reminder that he lacks the temperament to be president. Democrats and their allies must do the heavy lifting to communicate messages and inform voters of the negative impact Trump is having on them personally.
This holds true across many types of voters. For example, Priorities held two focus groups with Latino persuasion and turnout voters. Both groups of voters offered criticism of the way Trump has stoked division in the country, frequently citing his positions on immigration and what they perceive as his attacks on the immigrant community. In both groups, participants gave Trump some credit for what they viewed as a relatively strong national economy, but failed to link him to their personal financial struggles, like the high cost of living or uncertainty about health care. To convince these voters that Trump’s economic policies have failed them, Democrats should focus on issues specific to these voters’ lives, like health care and the cost of living.
Expanding the electorate to people who did not vote in 2016 is critical to achieving victory. All signs point to a high turnout in 2020, but Democrats must put in the time, effort and resources to ensure that outcome. It cannot be taken for granted.
Our research has found that 16 percent of registered voters did not vote for Clinton in 2016, but are open to voting for a Democrat in 2020. Half of this important target group did not vote at all in 2016. Additional research focused entirely on mobilization targets shows a significant number of people who currently are not yet registered to vote who can be mobilized to become part of a Democratic majority in 2020.
Our research results provide important reassurance that investments in expanding the Democratic voting universe can pay off next year. Our analysis of updated voter files, for example, shows that many of those who turned out to vote in 2018 had voted infrequently, if at all, in previous elections –confirming what we found in our survey results. Mobilization targets also tell us they are paying more attention to politics now than in the past and that having Donald Trump as president has made them more likely to become politically involved. Indeed, 83% of mobilization targets say they think the 2020 election will be more important than past elections, and when asked to explain why, 62% of those respondents volunteered that it was because we need to replace Trump.
And while this group is younger and more diverse than the electorate at large, like other voters they focus on policies that affect their own financial situation, with respondents most frequently choosing “health care” and “jobs and wages” as the most important issues to them personally. The most commonly selected reason to replace Trump was: “We need to elect someone whose economic priority is stability, security, and opportunity for average Americans, instead of just helping the rich get richer.”
The importance of economic issues is reinforced by the finding that these voters are dissatisfied with the economic situation in the country (18% very or fairly satisfied/55% not satisfied) and their personal economic situation (22% very or fairly satisfied/54% not satisfied). The biggest challenges that come to mind for these voters when thinking about their own personal economic situations are around living paycheck to paycheck, lack of financial security, cost of health care and drugs and the challenge of finding a good job.
Our research shows that while voters have mixed feelings about how the economy is doing nationally, they also share significant concerns about their financial security and that of their community. In fact, our survey indicates that Trump is losing the argument on the economy, and that Democrats have an opening to make a compelling argument that Trump and his policies are harmful to voters.
By a nearly 2-to-1 margin (55%/29%), voters are more likely to say that Trump cares mostly about helping the wealthy and special interests versus helping the average person and only 35% of voters say that they have benefitted a lot or some from Trump’s economic policies. At the same time, a majority of the respondents said that their income is falling BEHIND the cost of living while only 8% of voters say their income is rising faster than the cost of living. Majorities of voters report that the cost of health care, the cost of college and student debt, and wages not keeping up with the cost of living are all getting worse, not better.
These financial anxieties are real for voters, and explain why when asked to pick the more important fact about the economy, more than two-thirds of voters (69%) choose that wages are not keeping up with the cost of living and the cost of health care is way up, versus less than a third of voters (31%) who choose Donald Trump’s argument that millions of new jobs have been created and unemployment is way down.
Democrats must continue to press their advantage by reinforcing messages that voters are already inclined to agree with due to the wide range of issues on which they view things to be moving in the wrong direction:
Despite these beliefs on individual issues, voters do not immediately connect their economic struggles with the actions of Donald Trump. At the start of our survey, voters are split on how they view Trump’s handling of the economy (50% approve/50% disapprove). However, after being exposed to messaging that connects how Trump’s actions have impacted the lives of everyday Americans, respondents moved on Trump’s handling on the economy to 44% approve/56% disapprove, indicating that there is an education gap that Democrats can and must fill. Trump’s tax policies and healthcare policies play a central role in generating this movement.
Donald Trump will continue to remind voters that his temperament is unfit for the office that he holds, but unless Democrats make the case on economic issues it is unlikely voters will ever hear those arguments.
About This Poll
These findings are based on two surveys, both conducted online in January/February. The first is a survey among 1,851 registered voters across seven battleground states (AZ, FL, MI, NH, NV, PA, WI), with the results weighted in proportion to each state’s share of electoral votes. The second is a survey among 400 Democratic turnout targets (Democrats who did not vote in 2016, both registered and unregistered) across an expanded field of 15 battleground states (the seven previously mentioned, plus CO, GA, IA, MN, NC, OH, TX, VA). Additionally, focus groups were conducted in Phoenix, AZ (suburban persuasion voters and Latino turnout voters), Miami, FL (young voter turnout targets and Latina persuasion voters), and Milwaukee, WI (African-American turnout targets and white working-class persuasion voters).