What a Massive Voter Survey Tells Democrats About What They’re Doing Wrong

5 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Progressives are losing on the top issue of the coming election: the economy. There’s no point in denying that fact. Polls show it over and over again. Focus groups tell strategists that Republicans have long held an advantage over Democrats on this point, regardless of the economic reality. Once a myth takes hold, it’s tough to manipulate.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way, according to an ambitious research project conducted for a coalition of progressive groups that recognize the problem. The remedy? Democrats just need to realize progressive Twitter isn’t real life.

In a report shared exclusively with TIME, The Winning Jobs Narrative project details how Democrats might be able to catch up to—if not overtake—the GOP on the issue of the economy. With over 60,000 voters participating in 17 states, the survey suggests that Democrats can make up their lost ground if they talk about respect for work, value individual workers, and place government in a supporting rather than primary role. Day-to-day life needs to be at the forefront of Democratic messaging. Making villains of corporations isn’t the winner that the left thinks it is. The data suggests Democrats need a messaging framework that centers the conversation on working-class voters, the elusive reservoir of voters who have supported Republicans for years.

“Perception is something we can do something about, something we can change,” says Melissa Morales, a Democratic strategist working with the project. “There is reason for optimism. Voters are still with us. We just have to show that we are with them.”

It’s no secret that Democrats are having a rough stretch this election season. History suggests they could be heading to a drubbing in the midterms with their majorities in the House and Senate in peril. The party in control of the White House typically has a poor showing in its first at-bat of a new President’s term, and Biden’s poll numbers are, frankly, abysmal. You have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find an incumbent President with a lower job approval rating than Biden at this point in his term. In this environment, progressives are insisting the party focus on protecting civil rights, punishing corporate greed, and capping drug prices.

The strategy memo and slide deck, which are being sent around to progressive groups this week, are as instructive as they are foreboding. The research finds summoning villains does not work for Democrats. Casting the super-rich as the guilty party doesn’t really inspire liberals as much as you’d think, but hyping the working class creates a space for persuasion. For instance, workers should not pay more in taxes than the billionaires is a winning message, whereas the billionaires are bad doesn’t have the same effect. At the same time, the system is rigged is a better talking point than the billionaires are making record profits. It’s a tiny tweak, but one that the research suggests can make a difference.

In an echo of Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s, the research also shows dependency of government turns off voters in a big way. Instead, personal responsibility draws voters in. As much as progressives hate Clinton-era triangulation, it does resonate with voters, especially those in the center-right zone. And talking about the value of a job—especially when described as “a good-paying job”—helps boost Democrats’ numbers, especially among persons of color. Finally, don’t discount the messaging around how both responsibility and employment can amplify the winning topic of family, most notably among women who make up the spine of the Democratic base.

“We’re delivering these opportunities that we promised to help you build a better life. But there’s a missing link between what is happening and the message that we’re getting out,” Morales says.

Which may explain why the researchers found Democrats are at a deficit when promoting the economy. Voters simply aren’t buying the argument that this has been the fastest recovery in 40 years and aren’t giving Biden much credit for it; instead they’re looking at the worst inflation in the same period and record gas prices. The economic message is especially bad with Latino voters. Voters overall told the survey that they favor Republican stewardship of the economy by two percentage points—seemingly small, but in an election due to be decided on the margins, it could be the entire ballgame.

All of these findings come down to the brutal admission that the progressive bullhorn that has so much buzz on the left may not be a winner with the voters that matter most. While Kansas last week showed the electoral backlash against the end of federal abortion rights, it’s still secondary to the economy for most voters when they cast their midterm ballots. Health care helps Democrats when it is framed as an economic challenge facing families, not a right. And nowhere do notions of justice help make significant gains, whereas having a job that lets families get by does. It may not be a popular instinct on the progressive end of the political spectrum, but this trove of data can prove instructive—if Democrats will listen and tune out Twitter.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com