THE BLOG

Three Reasons Why Democrats' Economic Message is Falling Flat

05/14/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

With 62 consecutive months of job growth, a rising stock market, declining gas prices and a growing perception of economic improvement, conventional wisdom dictates that voters would give Democrats high marks on the economy -- but the opposite is happening. A recent Pew poll shows that more voters trust Republicans when it comes to managing the economy.

This should be an ominous sign for Democrats heading into tough battles for the House, Senate and the White House. If, despite promising economic indicators and growth, Democrats cannot successfully convince voters that they are better stewards of the economy than Republicans, who have largely opposed the president's economic agenda, how can we expect to win?

The Democratic Party's message throughout last year placed pay equity, raising the minimum wage and universal pre-K at the forefront of its policy agenda. These are all noble, important initiatives that appeal to values like fairness and equality. They should be a component of an economic recipe, but not its sole ingredients.

Here are three reasons why this message is falling flat:

1. Voters are more concerned with growth than inequality. Yes, voters are concerned about rising inequality and want an economy that's fair, but they are more concerned about stagnant wages and want leaders who focus on growth. There's obviously a relationship between a widening income gap and a lack of growth for the middle class, but voters clearly want lawmakers to focus on the latter. Two data points confirm this:

A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that voters, by a 2:1 margin, are more worried about middle class families not getting ahead than inequality between the rich and poor.

Similarly, when given a choice between a president who focuses on economic growth or economic fairness, voters prefer the former by a 20-point margin according to a Beyond the Beltway poll.

2. Policy prescriptions are not viewed as personally beneficial. The polling clearly shows that measures like raising the minimum wage and gender pay equity enjoy the support of a large majority of voters. So what's the problem? It's simple: The polling also shows that while voters generally support these policy measures, they don't necessarily view them as personally beneficial. For example: according to Beyond the Beltway, 62 percent of likely 2016 voters support raising the minimum wage, but only 51 percent believe it would help them and their families. Contrast this with cutting middle class taxes, which 75 percent believe would help them personally -- a difference of 24 points -- and it's easy to see why the Democratic Party's economic agenda isn't moving the needle.

3. We're arguing against our own economy. It's been well reported that there's an ongoing debate among Democratic leaders about how and whether to take credit for the economic progress that has been made. I'm of the belief that if we don't make a compelling case for our success we're conceding the most important issue on voters minds to Republicans. Worse, if we constantly argue that the economy is fundamentally unfair, that's an argument we're making against ourselves.

We're still a year and a half away from next year's elections and the choice before voters come November is more likely to be which candidate is going to fight for ordinary Americans, and not who has a better technical understanding of the economy--the two shouldn't be conflated. But since it's clear that the party's 2014 communication strategy didn't work, it should be disconcerting that some party leaders want to use the same approach next year. As the data shows, there is clearly a better alternative for Democrats.