The Daily 202: Democrats angry that Hillary Clinton had no economic message

Thursday , November 17, 2016 - 9:20 AM

James Hohmann

(c) 2016, The Washington Post.

The economy is Donald Trump’s strongest issue, and the post-election conversation has given short shrift to how significant of a factor it was in his unexpected victory.

A new Washington Post poll finds that 59 percent of Americans are somewhat or very confident that the economy will improve under President Trump’s watch, and 52 percent say they think their standard of living will improve. These numbers are remarkable when you consider that smaller numbers of people believe he will be effective at governing. And just 29 percent in the survey believe he has a mandate.

Other surveys since the election have shown a spike in consumer confidence driven by a feeling that Trump might be able to boost growth and create jobs.

According to the exit polls last Tuesday, 52 percent of voters said the economy is the most important issue facing the country. The next closest issue was terrorism, at a distant 18 percent. Trump had a somewhat narrow advantage on “who would better handle the economy,” 49 percent to 46 percent, but he won nearly every one who chose him on that question.

About one-third of voters in the exit polls said the economy is in good shape. Hillary Clinton won three-quarters of them. But nearly two-thirds said the economy is in poor shape, and Trump won more than six in 10 of that larger group.

-- The elites took Trump literally but not seriously. Voters took Trump seriously but not literally. Reporters focused a great deal on Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, border wall and desire to pull out of NAFTA. Many of Donald’s supporters never believed he would actually follow through on these plans. They paid more attention to his promise to create 25 million new jobs in the next decade and his guarantee that the GDP will grow at least 3.5 percent per year when he’s president. Ultimately, a lot of Trump supporters took a more generalized view that he is a change agent who has big plans to fix an economy that they think has left them behind.

Democrats relentlessly attacked Trump for his offensive comments about women and Latinos. When they talked about the economy, it was usually more to fault him for making his products overseas and for not paying his vendors than trying to persuade voters he is actually not a very good businessman. (There was more talk about his bankruptcies during the primaries than the general.) A lot of white male voters who are living paycheck to paycheck didn’t care about what Trump called “locker room talk” on the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video or the dozen women who came forward to accuse him of sexual assault.

-- Celinda Lake, the renowned Democratic pollster, is very angry that her party failed to lay out an economic vision to contrast with Trump’s. During an afternoon symposium at Gallup’s headquarters in downtown Washington this week, where dozens of experts on public opinion gathered to discuss the lessons of the election, Lake noted that Clinton’s standing on questions about the economy kept slipping during the final weeks.

“Why would the Democrats stubbornly not have an economic message?” she said. “Sixty-seven white papers don’t make an economic message. Thirty-seven bills you’re going to introduce in the first 100 days do not make an economic message. What we as Democrats really have to deal with is the fact that we didn’t have an economic message. . . . Someone at a meeting I was just at said, ‘Well, this was the biggest con ever.‘ Maybe. But one of the things we know in our business is that facts don’t matter. If the facts don’t fit the frame, people reject the facts - not the frame. . . . When we sound like we have a tin ear, we end up with Donald Trump as president.” (She also argued that racism and sexism worked against Clinton.)

Lake, who has worked for a long list of blue-chip Democratic clients, fretted that Trump will do a better job than Barack Obama at creating the sense of forward progress on the economy. She said one of her “everlasting disappointments” with the lame-duck president is that, “He didn’t do the Roosevelt thing. He didn’t engage in an ongoing dialogue about where we are and where we’re going. . . . In your deafening silence, you sound like you don’t get it. . . . Ironically, I think Trump might do more of that.”

“If Democrats don’t have something to offer on the economy, we’re not going to win elections,” she added. “That’s probably the single biggest thing we have to focus on. . . . You want to know who is going to win in 2020? Look at your crystal ball, and tell me who is ahead on the economy!”

There is irony that Trump won because of concerns about the economy and a yearning for change, the same mentality that in 1992 allowed Bill Clinton to beat an incumbent who voters considered more qualified and experienced. Lake recalled a focus group that she conducted for Bill when he was president. She asked a voter in Los Angeles about a line he was using in his stump speech about how many millions of jobs had been created since he took office. “I know. I have three of them,” the woman replied. When Lake recounted that story to the president, he began stressing that more needed to be done to create good-paying jobs. “The candidates live in a pretty rarefied world. They don’t encounter real people that much,” she told the group of pollsters. “We provide a lot of that function.”

-- But there are real tensions within the Democratic Party about what exactly the right economic message is. Everyone agrees inequality is bad, but how do you solve it? Many coastal, technocratic Democrats support trade. But lawmakers from the Rust Belt do not. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was a top Obama priority, of course, and Clinton felt compelled to flip-flop and come out against it during the primaries.

Jim Kessler and Jon Cowan, moderate Democrats who run the Third Way think tank, say that the party must emphasize more jobs, not just fairer jobs. “The income disparity in the United States isn’t about the one percent versus the other 99,” they write in an op-ed for The Post. “This thinking has led Democrats astray. The truth is that one-third of adults are economically secure and getting wealthier year by year. This is the upper-middle class that economist Stephen Rose found doubled in size and share of national wealth since 1979. The other two-thirds, however, are scared to death. The basic bargain of doing your part, doing your best and living a life of dignity and comfort has been shattered for these people. They don’t want handouts. They want work that provides a living, a career path and a sense of purpose.”

President Obama waded into the debate during a speech in Athens this week, arguing that “the current path of globalization needs a course correction” while also stressing that there is no turning back from an interconnected world. “In the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people, and that the negative impacts are squarely addressed,” he said.

-- In 2016, the economy was especially important to the blue-collar, non-college-educated whites who handed Trump the election. He made meaningful inroads with traditionally Democratic voters who earn less than $50,000 a year, are members of unions and attended “some” college but did not graduate.

Ten states saw a swing of five points or more toward Trump compared to Mitt Romney in 2012. Working class whites made up a plurality of the electorate in eight of these states, former Republican operative Liam Donovon notes in a blog post he self-published this week. On the surface, Trump only outran Romney by six points among working class white voters (67 percent to 61 percent). But Romney’s gains with this group were disproportionately located in the South, while Trump’s gains came in the Rust Belt.

Clinton herself last weekend blamed FBI director James Comey’s two letters for the late movement against her. But polls show that many of the people who broke for Trump late were primarily motivated by economic concerns. According to the exit polls, voters who made up their mind in the final week broke for Trump by just a five point margin. “A modest advantage, though not nearly enough to swing the election,” Donovan notes. “But in the states where it mattered, the picture was very different. In Michigan, late deciders favored Trump by 11 points. In Pennsylvania, Trump carried them by 17 points. And in Wisconsin, a state few saw as truly in play, the fence-sitters-fully 14 percent of voters-broke for Trump nearly two to one.”

-- Trump performed best in places where the recovery has been slower than the national average and where jobs are most at risk in the future. “Places with higher unemployment rates were no more likely to vote for Trump than those with lower rates,” economist Jed Kolko calculated for FiveThirtyEight. “Unemployment, however, is a crude measure of a local economy. Counties with weaker job growth since 2012, for example, were more likely to support Trump; the same is true for places with lower average earnings among full-time workers. . . . Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are at risk because of technology or globalization. Specifically, counties with the most ‘routine’ jobs - those in manufacturing, sales, clerical work and related occupations that are easier to automate or send offshore - were far more likely to vote for Trump.”

-- A forecasting model created by Yale economist Ray Fair, based on GDP growth and inflation, suggested strongly all year that the opposition party would win the November election. “If GDP growth is robust, job creation will keep up with the population and workers will be happy. If inflation is restrained, consumers will be happy. So a combination of robust growth and restrained inflation will make voters feel happy about the economy. Happy voters will vote for the incumbent party - and vice versa,” Brad Schiller, an emeritus professor of economics at American University, explains in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “Simply put, Clinton lost because the economy under President Obama did not perform well enough to meet Fair’s thresholds of happiness. Economic growth was anemic for nearly all of the last eight years. . . . In the Fair model, GDP growth in the three calendar quarters prior to the election is critical . . . And on that count, Clinton lost a lot of votes; GDP growth was a paltry 0.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, 1.4 percent in the second and 2.9 percent in the third.”

-- Republican pollster David Winston, who advisers House and Senate Republican leaders, thinks the key indicator was really the number of voters who felt that their children will not be as well off as them. “This was not an angry electorate; this was a frustrated electorate,” he said during this week’s session at Gallup.

-- Another emerging narrative: The Clinton campaign was too cocky about the strength of its data and field operations. From the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein: “In Michigan alone . . . state party and local officials were running at roughly one-tenth the paid canvasser capacity that John Kerry had when he ran for president in 2004. Desperate for more human capital, the state party and local officials ended up raising $300,000 themselves to pay 500 people to help canvass in the election’s closing weeks. One organizer said that in a precinct in Flint, they were sent to a burned down trailer park. No one had taken it off the list of places to visit because no one had been there until the final weekend. A similar situation unfolded in Wisconsin . . . [where its] state office and local officials scrambled to raise nearly $1 million for efforts to get out the vote in the closing weeks. Brooklyn headquarters had balked at funding it themselves . . . pointing out that Clinton had never trailed in a single poll in Wisconsin.”

-- The 2020 presidential campaign might wind up playing out in very different swing states than 2016. Texas wound up being closer than Iowa! Georgia and Arizona were both closer than Ohio! And Minnesota was closer than Nevada.

-- In Clinton’s defense, she received somewhere around one million more votes than Trump. Democrats have now won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections.


With The Washington Post’s Breanne Deppisch


Keywords: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, transition, Barack Obama, why Clinton lost, why Trump won, the economy, exit polls, Celinda Lake, Bill Clinton

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