THE CENTER HOLDS
Clinton’s Key: Never Mind the Bernie Bros, Here Come the Swing Voters
Winning them will take more than the finger-pointing populism that’s dominated the Democratic primary campaign.
Trump’s solid majorities mean that GOP voters, in their inscrutable wisdom, have spoken, choosing a political neophyte who’s never held any public office, has no discernable governing philosophy, and whose campaign consists mainly of bigoted outbursts and vicious personal attacks on anyone who gets in his way.
In contrast, the Democratic center seems to have held. Bernie Sanders’s call for an anti-capitalist “revolution” enthralled millenials, but his dream of turning America into a European-style welfare state—a colossal Denmark—struck out with black and Latino voters, and with women, who preferred the pragmatic Clinton.
What’s more, Clinton now has a cause that can galvanize a campaign that’s been criticized for lacking passion and inspiration—saving America from Donald Trump. Although some diehard Bernie Bros may decide to sit out the November election, she should have little difficulty uniting her party around the goal of keeping the billionaire bully out of the White House.
Looking ahead, the bigger challenge will be recalibrating her campaign for the general election. That means moving beyond attempts to co-opt Sanders’s populist appeal to hardcore partisans and crafting a broader message aimed at persuadable voters across the center.
A new PPI poll provides fresh evidence that the pragmatic center’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. Swing voters still exist, and they likely will play a decisive role in determining which party wins control of the White House and Senate in November.
Conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz, the PPI survey examined four presidential battleground states that also feature competitive Senate and House races this year: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada. We found that just over 20 percent of electorate in these swing states is made up of voters who lend their support equally to Democrats and Republicans, do not strongly identify with either party, and did not vote for the same party in the last two elections.
Who are the swing voters in 2016? Most describe themselves as Independent (84%) and moderate (56%). In political outlook they lie between the two parties: Just 11% are liberals, compared to 49% of Democrats; 24% are conservatives, compared to 69% of Republicans. They are slightly more female than male and a little less likely to have a college degree than voters overall. Nearly a third of them are non-white.
Our survey indicates that to win them, Democrats must move beyond the finger-pointing populism that’s dominated their primary campaign. Swing voters aren’t drawn to an angry narrative of economic grievance and victimhood. Most don’t believe the economic deck is stacked against them (only 39% say it is, compared to 47% of Democrats).
Swing voters are worried about the economy, but they have little interest in a “revolution” to fetter corporations or trade wars with China and Mexico. Instead, they seem eager for a hopeful account of how to make America a stronger competitor in the global economy. They reject Donald Trump’s overblown claims that the U.S. economy is in shambles. Nor do they share the populist left’s hostility toward American business.
On the contrary, they favor policies that help entrepreneurs and businesses succeed as the best way to get wages rising again and help U.S. workers get ahead. For example, they support dramatically lowering the corporate income tax—to 15%—to put U.S. companies on an even competitive footing and prevent more jobs from going overseas.
Here’s the message that comes through loud and clear in this poll: In the general election, Democrats can’t afford to cede the high ground of economic growth and competitiveness.
While they see reducing inequality as important, swing voters show less intensity on this score than Democrats. Like Republicans, they give higher priority to stimulating growth than to fairness.
On trade, the PPI poll found a striking incongruity between the fiercely protectionist rhetoric that has pervaded the primary season and the attitudes of voters in the four battleground states. Fully three-fourths of all voters believe that, to have a strong economy the United States must rely on trade. Strikingly, Democrats are the most likely to agree (82%). They also strongly support new trade agreements.
Strong majorities of voters reject the Trump-Sanders diagnosis that bad trade agreements are to blame for U.S. jobs going abroad; they say cheaper labor is the main reason. And more say they want to train U.S. workers for new jobs in high-tech manufacturing than to bring back manufacturing jobs that don’t require advanced skills, like textiles or automobiles.
Swing voters are interested in new and pragmatic ways to stimulate economic growth and opportunity. For example, they were more likely than Democrats to favor reducing regulatory burdens on U.S. businesses (70-57%). They strongly endorsed (78%) a regulatory improvement commission to prune old rules that have accumulated over decades. They also backed a two-year limit on environmental reviews of new infrastructure projects, as well as reining in the proliferation of state and local occupational licensing requirements, which make it especially difficult for low-income people to market their skills.
Swing voters and Democrats strongly believe that higher levels of skill and education are the key to boosting U.S. competitiveness. They favor creation of a robust system of “career pathways” that combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training, and offers credentials to certify the technical skills workers need to land middle-income jobs.
In general, the swing voters are more fiscally conservative and mistrustful of government than Democrats. To take one example, Democrats by 52-39 favor Sanders’ call for “free college.” Swing voters instead endorsed (60-36) the idea of allowing students to get college degrees after three years, thereby shaving a year off tuition costs.
Democrats and swing voters enthusiastically endorsed “universal pensions” to help all workers save for retirement from their very first job, as well as “HomeK” plans that also allow them to put aside money tax-free for a down payment on a home. There was also strong support for a carbon tax to slow climate change, and swing voters agreed with Democrats that the bigger danger is that America will move away from fossil fuels too slowly rather than too fast.
All in all, our survey of swing voters in swing states illuminates the key task facing Democrats as they pivot from the primaries to the general election: Fashioning a forward-looking message that unites the interests of swing voters and the party’s core partisans.
That means offering a progressive alternative to an angry and polarizing populism—a hopeful vision for reviving economic growth that works for everyone, not just the fortunate few.