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President Joe Biden and Democrats cannot win the debate over the economy without fundamentally reframing the terms of the choice they are offering voters, an extensive new research study by one of the party’s prominent electoral-strategy groups has concluded.
The study, scheduled to be released today, seeks to mitigate one of the party’s most glaring vulnerabilities heading into the 2024 election: the consistent finding in surveys that when it comes to managing the national economy or addressing inflation, significantly more voters express confidence in Republicans than in Democrats.
To close that gap, the study argues, Biden and Democrats must shift the debate from which party is best equipped to grow the overall economy to which side can help families achieve what the report calls a “better life.” The study argues that Democrats can win that argument with a three-pronged message centered on: delivering tangible kitchen-table economic benefits (such as increased federal subsidies for buying health insurance), confronting powerful special interests (such as major corporations), and pledging to protect key personal liberties and freedoms, led by the right to legal abortion.
The study was conducted by Way to Win, a group that provides funding for candidates and organizations focused on mobilizing voters of color, in conjunction with Anat Shenker-Osorio, of ASO Communications, a message consulting firm for progressive candidates and causes. Last year, Way to Win was among the top advocates pushing the party to stress a message of protecting personal freedoms and democracy—an approach that helped Democrats overperform expectations despite widespread discontent about the economy.
Reversing the advantage Donald Trump and the GOP have on the economy will require Democrats to highlight “the tangible improvements their policies have made in people’s lives, in lieu of speaking of abstract economic gains, as well as touting their future agenda of expanding on these gains, taking on corporate greed and the MAGA Republicans who aim to rule only for the wealthy few,” concludes a memo summarizing the research that was provided exclusively to The Atlantic.
Based on months of polls, focus groups, and other public-opinion research, the study comes amid simmering Democratic anxieties over national and swing-state surveys showing Trump leading Biden. Especially frustrating for the White House and other Democrats has been the persistence and pervasiveness of negative public attitudes about the economy, despite robust economic growth, low unemployment, and a huge reduction in the inflation rate over the past year. Democrats were particularly unnerved by a recent survey from Democracy Corps, a group founded by the longtime party strategists James Carville and Stanley B. Greenberg, that found that voters in the key swing states gave Trump a retrospective job-approval rating for his performance as president nearly 10 percentage points higher than what they give Biden for his current performance.
Biden has spent months trying to highlight positive trends in the economy by describing them under the rubric of “Bidenomics.” But the Way to Win study, like the Democracy Corps research, argues that it is counterproductive for the administration to try to convince voters that inflation is abating or that the economy is improving while so many are struggling to make ends meet. Telling voters that “inflation is going down [produced a] backlash” in the research, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Way to Win’s senior vice president, told me: “Their experience is that it’s up. If you make an overarching statement that things are getting better, it rubs people the wrong way.”
Probably the key insight in the report is the contention that it’s a mistake for Democrats to focus the 2024 debate on any of the broad national trends in the economy, including those that have been positive under Biden, such as job growth.
For many years, the report argues, voters have been inclined to believe that Republicans are better than Democrats at managing the overall economy—an advantage that may be especially pronounced for Trump, a former business mogul, if he’s the GOP nominee. But, the study found, swing voters, as well as the irregular voters the party needs to turn out in 2024, give Democrats an edge on which party can best deliver for “you and your family’s economic well-being.”
“If the argument is who [handles] the economy best, even though it’s not true in any sense, that’s their brand advantage,” Shenker-Osorio told me. “If the question is who is going to create the best future for your family, that is a Democratic-brand advantage. That is a story we can tell. It’s a credible story, and it’s a story that people care more about.”
To shift the debate into this more favorable terrain, the report argues, Biden and other Democrats must simultaneously reorient their economic arguments in opposite directions. The group argues that Democrats must narrow their focus by talking less about macroeconomic trends and more about specific policies they have enacted to help families make ends meet. That includes policies that Biden has passed to lower prescription-drug and utility costs, and policies he could promote in a second term, such as restoring the expanded child tax credit that Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia stripped from the Inflation Reduction Act last year.
“Among both swing voters and surge voters, folks are moved more by talking about tangible gains than by talking about growing the economy,” Shenker-Osorio said.
Simultaneously, the report argues that Democrats must link their economic agenda to a broader promise to defend voters against an array of forces threatening their ability to succeed. In its research, the group found that the strongest case for Democrats blended pledges to deliver concrete economic benefits with promises to defend fundamental rights and stand up to big, wealthy corporations.
Across all of these fronts, Fernandez Ancona argues, the key for Democrats is not just to warn about what a second Trump term could mean but to give voters a positive vision that emphasizes their success at stopping him and the prospect that reelecting Biden could deliver measurable benefits. “We really believe we can’t just rely on telling people the bad things,” Fernandez Ancona said.
Key results in the 2022 election offer Democrats some reason for optimism that the approach urged by Way to Win can succeed. In the five swing states most likely to decide the 2024 presidential race, Democrats won seven of the nine Senate and gubernatorial races in 2022, primarily around variations on the themes that Way to Win wants the party to stress next year.
The range of problems confronting Biden, such as doubts about his age and capacity, can’t all be resolved by recalibrating his message. Fernandez Ancona doesn’t pretend otherwise. But she argues that a more precisely targeted message will provide Biden the best chance of maximizing his support whatever the background environment looks like next year. “We can’t control what conditions are,” she told me. “Messaging can’t solve all problems. But it does do something to paint the path forward and make sure that voters go into the booth knowing what the stakes are.”
With Trump looming as the likely GOP nominee, Democratic strategists at this point may have greater consensus about the stakes in 2024 than the path forward for the party. The sheer proliferation of studies proposing a new approach for Biden may be the most telling measure of how much more difficult this election looks than Democrats once anticipated.