“His style is not what won him the presidency. It was, remarkably, his substance”
Mark Penn, Democrat strategist and former pollster for Bill Clinton during his presidency, is reviled by today’s regressive Democrats. Happily, his truth bombs land amongst his leftist audience with a fizzle amid looks of scathing disdain.
Penn’s latest attempt to speak truth to the left’s waning political power addresses why, as co-director of the Harvard-Harris Poll, he believes that the left is still getting everything wrong, particularly when it comes to polls and President Trump.
In July, Penn co-authored with Andrew Stein a piece in the New York Times urging Democrats to move back to center. He noted that the Democratic Party had moved so far left and extended their totalitarian tentacles so far into the lives of middle America that the only way back was to adopt Clinton’s triangulation model.
The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is unquestionably to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party.
In the early 1990s, the Democrats relied on identity politics, promoted equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity and looked to find a government solution for every problem. After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.
But the last few years of the Obama administration and the 2016 primary season once again created a rush to the left. Identity politics, class warfare and big government all made comebacks. Candidates inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and a host of well-funded groups have embraced sharply leftist ideas. But the results at the voting booth have been anything but positive: Democrats lost over 1,000 legislative seats across the country and control of both houses of Congress during the Obama years. And in special elections for Congress this year, they failed to take back any seats held by Republicans.
Central to the Democrats’ diminishment has been their loss of support among working-class voters, who feel abandoned by the party’s shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures, from trying to restore manufacturing jobs. They saw the party being mired too often in political correctness, transgender bathroom issues and policies offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.
He’s not wrong. Indeed, many of LI’s writers have noted the same factors in the Democrat’s historic losses.
Penn and Stein went so far as to point out that Americans in the heartland can’t be won over by government handouts and that Democrats need to abandon socialism and (gasp!) be more fiscally responsible.
Bigger government handouts won’t win working-class voters back. This is the fallacy of the left, believing that voters just need to be shown how much they are getting in government benefits. In reality, these voters see themselves as being penalized for maintaining the basic values of hard work, religion and family. It’s also not all about guns and abortion. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both won working-class voters despite relatively progressive views on those issues.
Today, identity politics and disdain for religion are creating a new social divide that the Democrats need to bridge by embracing free speech on college campuses and respect for Catholics and people of other faiths who feel marginalized within the party.
There are plenty of good issues Democrats should be championing. They need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility. While the old brick-and-mortar economy is being regulated to death, the new tech-driven economy has been given a pass to flout labor laws with unregulated, low-paying gig jobs, to concentrate vast profits and to decimate retailing.
Rural areas have been left without adequate broadband and with shrinking opportunities. The opioid crisis has spiraled out of control, killing tens of thousands, while pardons have been given to so-called nonviolent drug offenders. Repairing and expanding infrastructure, a classic Democratic issue, has been hijacked by President Trump — meaning Democrats have a chance to reach across the aisle to show they understand that voters like bipartisanship.
Gallup reported in January of this year:
Many more Americans have considered themselves politically conservative than liberal since the early 1990s. That remained the case in 2016, when an average of 36% of U.S. adults throughout the year identified themselves as conservative and 25% as liberal.
. . . . Since Gallup began routinely measuring Americans’ political ideology in 1992, conservative identification has varied between 36% and 40%. At the same time, there has been a clear increase in the percentage identifying as politically liberal, from 17% to 25%. This has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in the percentage identifying as “moderate,” from 43% to 34%.
. . . . Most of the long-term change in Americans’ political views occurred after 2000 and can be explained by one overarching factor — an increasing likelihood of Democrats (including independents who lean Democratic) to self-identify as liberal. Democratic liberal identification has increased by about one percentage point each year, from 30% in 2001 to 44% in 2016. As a result, liberalism now ranks as the top ideological group among Democrats.
. . . . People who once opted for the word “moderate” may be more willing to call themselves “liberal” even if their views on the issues are the same.
These numbers are not lost on Penn and Stein who go on to say:
Easily lost in today’s divided politics is that only a little more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves liberals, while almost three in four are self-identified moderates or conservatives. Yet moderate viewpoints are being given short shrift in the presidential nominating process. So Democrats should change their rules to eliminate all caucuses in favor of primaries. Caucuses are largely undemocratic because they give disproportionate power to left-leaning activists, making thousands of Democrats in Kansas more influential than millions of people in Florida.
Americans are looking for can-do Democrats in the mold of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton — leaders who rose above partisanship to unify the country, who defended human rights and equality passionately, and who also encouraged economic growth and rising wages. That is the road back to relevance, and the White House, for the Democrats.
Their NYT op-ed was met with disdain (the 1990’s are SO OVER), delusional outrage (this is asinine! We’re winning . . . um, except those 1,000 plus seats we lost under Obama), to grudgingly realistic (okay, sure, we can’t win back political power without winning Trump voters, but we can do that without budging too much, right?).
Penn’s latest piece at the Hill is likely to go over equally well among the warring factions of the Democratic Party.
Once again, Penn makes sense, something regressive Democrats seem to find intolerable, and argues that the glee Democrats and the left are taking in Trump’s poll numbers is misguided at best, delusional at worst.
The polls that failed to detect the full strength of President Trump on Election Day continue to underestimate the president’s support for the job he is doing, paying way too much attention to the Twitter wars and ignoring the public support for many of the actions is undertaking.
This can create some serious misjudgments by organizations like the NFL and some Republican senators, who find out later that they buck the president only to their own detriment. And nothing was more devastating to Democrats than believing the election was over when it wasn’t.
He goes over methodology and the problems with polling everyone, including those who do not—or cannot legally—vote.
The methodology of some of these polls is to poll “all adults” without any qualification as to citizenship or voting intent. A lot of the nonvoters dislike politics and all politicians, and these polls also include them along with undocumented immigrants who are not screened out. Another group of polls has Trump’s approval in the low 40s, and Harvard-Harris Poll, which eliminates all undecideds, has it at 45 percent, similar to Rasmussen.
Generally, the president does best with voters polled online, as opposed to with live operators. He got 46 percent of the electorate in the election and little has changed since then as 90 percent of his voters support him, unchanged over many months.
Drilling down into issue-related specifics also helps President Trump because a majority of Americans support him on the issues.
When we break down his approval ratings by specific areas, we get a more complex picture of his image. The president gets 65 percent approval for hurricane response and 53 percent approval for the economy and fighting terrorism. He gets his lowest marks for the way he is administering the government.
. . . . We see the same dynamic being played out over and over again: The president grabs the spotlight with strong statements (typically on Twitter) of his policies, for which he is savaged as over the top on social and mainstream media. Then, over time, he often wins the underlying policy argument. You can see how this played out on the economy and taxes, the national anthem, attacks on bad trade deals and calls for more border controls.
. . . . For the first time in a decade, a plurality of people see the economy as moving in the right direction and 64 percent see the economy as growing. The voters give Trump significant credit for the economic upswing, and any read on his approval ratings have to take into account that moving the economy forward these days is seen as Job No. 1 for the president.
When it comes to the NFL, 57 percent believe that football players should stand and respect the flag, according to a Reuters poll. While voters are taken aback by the roughness with which Trump took on the issue, there is no question that a solid majority support his position. Moreover, the backpedaling we are seeing by the NFL is reflective of a country that wants its athletes to respect those who went into real battle, without the millions of dollars of pay these athletes receive.
Penn also notes that over all approval rating is not a measure of a president’s success because . . . well, look at Obama.
No question that 68 percent or more say they would like to see Trump stop tweeting, but is measuring that really reflective of his underlying political power compared to what’s happening in the economy? In the end, will voters cast ballots on tweets or jobs?
. . . . Remember, Americans liked President Obama for his way with words and his calm leadership style. They just opposed many of his policies, so Obama’s numbers gave a false sense of approval. Trump is the mirror opposite. People are put on edge by his words while favoring a lot of the positions he is taking on issues.
. . . . The failure to understand the 2016 election was in large measure not a failure of the final polls, many of which showed a close race, but a failure to understand the powerful storyline of Trump’s appeal with his respect for cops and the military, taking a more aggressive position against our enemies, and pushing for tax and health-care reform. His style is not what won him the presidency. It was, remarkably, his substance.
Penn also notes that compared to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP as a whole, President Trump is clearly the favorite among Republican voters.
When it comes to rank-and-file Republican voters, Trump is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. No poll I’ve seen puts his support from Republicans at below 80 percent and we at Harvard-Harris have it at 84 percent, which is remarkable, given his knock-down-drag-out fight with some mainstream Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has dropped to the least-liked politician on the national scene today. Polls in Tennessee showed retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s reelect with Republican primary votes is at 42, putting him in a weak position with those core voters.
The remarkable thing is that, in response to a president ready to sign their legislation, the Republican leadership is committing hari-kari in failing to pass the very things that won them their elections: opposing Obamacare, enacting tax reform, taking a tougher position on Iran. (Remember when they invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the Iran deal?)
They are, puzzlingly, walking away from everything they have pledged to their voters, and the revolution they are about to face from those voters is real, much to the benefit of the Democrats at this point.
Penn has some final, warning words for those taking positions based on Trump’s style rather than on substance and on jumping to unrealistic conclusions based on polling.
It is by watching the underlying public sentiment of what he is doing, and not his methods, that you see how polling better watch out here, as reality versus research will again be tested, and reality always wins.
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.