In advance of tonight’s debate, a few prominent commentators and political figures—most recently former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel—have taken the current presidential field to task. These critics argue that candidates are taking policy positions that are too far outside the mainstream for any general election standard bearer. But the critics are simply wrong. Many different polls focusing on both policy and specific electoral targets (i.e., swing voters and “base” turnout) make clear that aggressive progressive policies are also good politics.
This is especially true for 1) economic policies, such as taxing the wealthy and raising the minimum wage; 2) using the power of government to rein in the large corporations (for example: pharmaceutical companies that, using their dominant market positions, have raised drug prices at alarming rates; and 3) using public funding to invest in decarbonization and green jobs. It is also true that other policies, including immigration and gun safety reforms—issues central to the so-called “culture war”—are widely popular.
Policies: Progressive Proposals on Taxation, Wages, and Regulation Are Winners
The range of broadly popular progressive economic policies is striking. Voter support by issue:
- Higher income taxes on individuals earning $200,000 or more a year: 58 percent of voters support this, per June 2019 Voter Study Group (VSG) study.
- Wealth taxes: 62 percent of voters support this, per July 2019 Marist poll.
Public Spending and Regulation
- Medicare for “all who want it,” giving a choice between a national health insurance program and private health care: 70 percent of voters support this, Marist.
- Government regulation of drug prices: 67 percent of voters support this, Marist.
- Toward a Green New Deal, investing government money in green jobs and green infrastructure: 63 percent of voters support this, Marist.
- Free tuition at public colleges and universities: 52 percent of voters support this, Marist.
- National minimum wage of $15/hour: 56 percent of voters support this, Marist.
It is true that some progressive policy ideas proposed by 2020 candidates are underwater, but voters across America now regularly and resoundingly support structural reforms put forward by progressives.
Voters: Trump Approval on the Economy Is Thin—and Perhaps Insufficient
As explored in a recent Democracy Fund VSG report that I coauthored with Lee Drutman and Vanessa Williamson, Americans’ economic views are defining—and defying—party lines. This is important, especially for the next presidential election. One possible, or even likely, scenario assumes a razor-thin 2020 contest that hinges on white voters in the upper Midwest. Given this, we would be wise to pay careful attention to the preferences of lower-income Republicans, independents, and white non-college voters.
While virtually all Democrats, whether affluent or lower income, support progressive economic policies, one in five Republican voters, mostly at the lower part of the income scale, think more like Democrats on the economy. This is substantial. Perhaps even more important than policy preferences, Republicans also think like Democrats about how the economy works, meaning that they believe that some people are rich and others are poor because of an “unfair” economic system or because of “discrimination.”
Notably, Republicans struggling in today’s economy, and thus carrying more economically progressive views, are less likely to say they will vote for President Trump in 2020 than Republicans in the economic mainstream of their party—by 19 points.
At close to 40 percent of the electorate, Independents are obviously an important and closely watched group. Some Independents (7 percent of the electorate) have clearly economically “left” views (again: they think like Democrats on issues of taxation, wages, and regulation). This group voted for congressional Democrats by 16 percentage points more in the 2018 midterm elections than they supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Clearly, this group has already moved. And even economically “right” Independents are three times more likely to say they are uncertain about voting for Trump in 2020 than economically mainstream Republicans.
Navigator polling also finds another important subgroup of independent voters: the 6 percent who do approve of Trump on the economy but nonetheless disapprove of Trump’s behavior and personal values. This group voted for Democrats by 20 points in 2018, and overwhelmingly say (80 percent) that other factors—beyond the economy—will motivate their 2020 vote.
White “Working-Class” Voters, Non-Metro Women
A new GQRR study (based on focus groups outside Bangor, Maine; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Clark County, Nevada) makes clear that Trump’s claims of economic strength are undercut by his divisive name-calling and blatantly racist approach to campaigning. Two-thirds of the voters in these focus groups voted for Trump in 2016, but today only half say that they will vote for the president. The gender divide was clear: Most men had consolidated behind Trump, but one-third of the women who had voted for Trump in 2016 now say that they will consider voting for someone else. One of the biggest weaknesses for Trump with this group is his claim to have created the “greatest economy in history.” But the president’s personal values and his views of women were also clear problems for these voters. This dovetails with a new Quinnipiac poll showing that 49 percent of non-college educated white women disapprove of the president.
Takeaways for the July Debates and Beyond
To “win” a debate—and to consolidate votes in both the primary and the general election—candidates must thread a number of needles. They have to be warm and genuine. They have to communicate clearly and show that they are going to fight for all Americans, and an American future, against an autocratic Republican party that has shown it will use faux populism and outright racism strategically to cling to power. Most of all, they have to show that their policy ideas meet what the moment demands: more tax revenue from upper-income Americans and large corporations; an expanded role for government in essential public services, including childcare and health care for all Americans; free college; and public investment in green jobs and decarbonization.
A winning coalition, including younger voters, voters of color, and women, will support the candidate that stands for the above. The data show that some small but important subset of independents, and even perhaps some “economically left” Republicans, would join that coalition in 2020. An aggressively progressive candidate can make the argument about real structural change to the economy with very little risk of backlash; all Democrats, and some critical other swing voters, would probably nod in agreement.
Good policies make good politics. And that is what we all should watch for on the debate stage tonight.
 Perhaps most striking is Medicare For All eliminating private insurance (although even this idea gets a 40 percent approval rating).