Four months before the November election, Democrats are anxious and divided. They’re worried about polls forecasting that the battle for Congress will be tight, not the “blue wave” blowout they dreamed of. They’re divided over what their core message should be: radical resistance to President Donald Trump or a more moderate pitch to voters in the center.
As former President Barack Obama said at a weekend fundraiser, the party should take a deep breath and calm down. The fundamentals of this election year are still running in Democrats’ favor. And they have a workable platform to run on, although it can be hard to locate in the onslaught of the daily news cycle.
Like most midterms, this year’s will be a referendum on the incumbent president — only more so. A Pew Research Center poll last month showed that voters on all sides are unusually focused on choosing which party controls Congress and making their votes a judgment on the president.
That’s bad news for Republicans. Despite occasional good weeks, Trump remains the most unpopular first-term president of modern times.
Democrats have the advantage of an “enthusiasm gap,” according to Pew, with self-described liberals especially fired up. But the Democratic lead on the question of which party voters prefer has ebbed from 13 points in January to 6 points today (46 percent to 40 percent) — not enough to assure a change in control of Congress.
Those numbers at least should indicate to Democrats that they can stop worrying about their base — liberal and progressive voters plan to turn out. The key to winning back the House, veteran party strategists argue, is appealing to voters in the center.
“Keep the debate on issues that matter to swing voters,” advises Mark Mellman, who has worked for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and California’s Barbara Boxer. Don’t push a left-wing wish list — even after Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win in New York City on June 26.
Swing voters care about the economy — not the Wall Street economy that’s booming, but the household economy where people say they haven’t felt much benefit from the GOP’s tax cut. Republican candidates are trumpeting good unemployment and growth numbers, and they’re praying that a new GDP measure due out July 27 will show a big jump.
But Democrats don’t need to concede the point. Polls show that the massive shift in taxation that Republicans passed last year is unpopular, an unusual achievement for a tax cut. In several recent polls, no more than 1 in 4 Americans said they had noticed any decrease in their tax bills.
“Trump is going to present the economy and the tax cuts as a success,” said Stanley Greenberg, another strategist. “We want that fight … What’s killing people is rising costs: housing, health care, child care.”
Voters are particularly worried about health care: The Trump administration gave Democrats a powerful new talking point last month when it asked a federal judge to undo massively popular protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Immigration isn’t an issue most Democrats in swing districts would have chosen to run on, but they can’t avoid it now. Calls from Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency grabbed headlines — and earned a gleeful response from Trump and other Republicans, who want to tar the Democrats as soft on crime.