McArdle: As much as candidates, voters need to reassess

With the economy in Trump’s favor, Democrats need to show voters they can be good economic stewards.

By Megan McArdle / The Washington Post

Looking at the results of the latest Battleground Poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, voters are not overly fond of President Trump. A comfortable majority of those polled, 56 percent, said that they view him unfavorably; half expressed their intention to vote for a Democrat come November 2020. And 51 percent want to see him impeached.

Of course, judging by the results, voters aren’t overly fond of the Democratic candidates either. Half of polled voters rated both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, unfavorably. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with 43 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable split, appeared to do a bit better, but it’s also possible that she, and the rest of the Democratic field, is being saved from similarly high unfavorables by the substantial number of voters who say they’ve never heard of them.

As pollster Celinda Lake said during a Tuesday briefing, if you had to choose, you’d much rather be a Democrat than a Republican this cycle. But Republicans and Trump both have strong advantages over their Democratic rivals in a few areas: jobs, taxes, the economy, national security. Unfortunately for Democrats, those areas are rather key.

Simple presidential election models that look mostly at economic fundamentals can explain almost half of the variation in election results, without looking at any details of the candidates or their performance in office. Those are obviously fundamentals you’d like to have with you; as Trump mostly does, for the moment. Indeed, in many ways it’s a testimony to how bad Trump is in other ways that with record-low unemployment, solid GDP growth and low inflation, he has nonetheless managed to pull only a 42 percent favorable overall rating.

Still, if you’re a Democrat, you have to recognize that while Trump’s favorables are low, they were also low in 2016, and he nonetheless eked out a victory by the simple expedient of running against a candidate just as unlikable as he was. Too, you’ll remember that it’s quite difficult to unseat an incumbent president who has presided over a strong economy; even if his administration has otherwise seemed less than glorious. And you presumably know that while a convenient recession would seal Trump’s fate, no one can predict when a recession might occur.

So even if you can’t entirely erase the more than 10-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues, you’d really like to narrow it a little.

Democrats have their own strengths, of course: education, health care, climate change. The good news for Democrats is that health care ranks right up there with the economy as a matter of voter concern. The bad news is that global warming does not — in one 2018 poll, it registered barely above “providing relief after natural disasters” — and the people who say that it’s a very important issue for the government to address tend to already be solidly Democratic voters.

The temptation for Democrats on the debate stage Tuesday night was to stay in that comfort zone where they already do well. The Battleground Poll suggests that this is the right approach to winning a primary; 78 percent of respondents said that when choosing a presidential candidate, the most important thing is picking a “candidate whose views match your own” rather than one “who beats the other side.” Candidates would be crazy to ignore that reality.

But given the importance of the economy to the coming election, Democratic voters might want to reassess their priorities. To be sure of beating Trump, Democrats need to convince voters that they, too, can be able stewards of the economy. It will be difficult to do that if the base forces them to spend the next six months trying to outflank each other to the left, and risk losing moderates by ceding strategically vital economic terrain to the Republicans.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.

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