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What a Green Wave Can’t Hide — It’s Still the Economy, Stupid

Strong economic numbers may be giving Republicans a late boost

Supporters cheer before President Donald Trump takes the stage Monday at a rally in Houston. Republicans, with their economic track record, have given voters a clear choice in this election, Winston writes. (Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
Supporters cheer before President Donald Trump takes the stage Monday at a rally in Houston. Republicans, with their economic track record, have given voters a clear choice in this election, Winston writes. (Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

OPINION — We’re down to the wire. Less than two weeks out from the election, this is when you begin to hear politicians and their consultants talk about campaign mechanics — mega ad buys, turnout operations, phone banks and ballot security — that will “get their candidate over the finish line.”

This year, Democrats are also bragging about their fundraising prowess, a “green wave” so to speak that gives them a winning advantage, they argue, over Republicans. Perhaps they should remember powerful fundraisers like Hillary Clinton and the 15 other Republican presidential candidates who outraised and outspent Donald Trump by a country mile and lost.

Money is a resource, not an outcome.

Elections, in the end, are won or lost based on ideas and solutions. Campaign mechanics and the money to pay for them matter because they are the vehicle to put a candidate or a party’s content message before the voters. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of mechanics, but issue content is what drives elections, not just a ride to the polls.

The voter has to want to vote, especially in midterms, and real-world solutions that matter to people motivate participation. Democrats and Republicans have two weeks to close the deal with the American public by offering their vision for the next two years; and not surprisingly, the parties don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the election’s most important issue.

ICYMI: GOP Shifts Messaging on Health Care Ahead of Midterm Elections

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The right message

I rarely agree with Nancy Pelosi but earlier this year, the House minority leader said this about the 2018 election: “It comes down to an economic message. … We have many other issues that we care about. We can’t do anything about them unless we win, and the winning message is an economic agenda.”

She should have taken her own advice. For months, Democrats have focused their central message on health care, but what they have failed to do is offer alternatives to actually fix the problems plaguing the health care system. Instead, they have aimed their rhetorical fire at Republicans, blaming the GOP for the continued rise in health care costs along with issues such as access and a state-based focus on pre-existing conditions.

What they haven’t done is offer a solution. In fact, Democrats are desperately trying to bridge what amounts to a huge divide on health care between the party’s ideological wings. Some are enthusiastically embracing a government-run approach — Bernie Sanders’ socialist “Medicare for All” — despite its $32 trillion price tag. Other Democrats, with at least a modicum of fiscal reality, have been less than enthusiastic about the Vermont senator’s single-payer solution but haven’t offered anything of real substance in its stead.

So Democrats go into the last two weeks offering health care generalities while pounding Republicans on their health care specifics.

GOP on the ascent?

Republicans, on the other hand, are counting on an improving economy, rising wages, and record-low unemployment to carry the day with voters. There is some evidence that the good economic numbers of the past months are beginning to have an effect.

This week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll saw President Donald Trump’s job approval rating hit a personal record high of 47 percent (compared to a 49 percent disapproval rating), which raised more than a few eyebrows with the midterms just around the corner.

The poll showed Trump had managed a 6-point turnaround from September when 44 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved of his job performance. 

As cable pundits scratched their collective heads trying to understand how this unexpected news could possibly be true, the answer is fairly simple. Once again, it’s the economy, stupid.

The economy has been the number one issue cited by voters in surveys that go back decades, and it was no different in this poll. Voters in the WSJ/NBC poll put the economy first at 21 percent followed by health care at 17 percent.

The fact that President Trump’s job approval is rising as the economy continues to improve shouldn’t come as a surprise. When presidents focus on their top issue, voters tend to give them more favorable ratings — with one caveat, that they have actually made progress on the issue.

President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama both ran on fixing the economy in their first terms but governed by focusing on health care. And they paid the price with the electorate when each saw the Democrats lose the House on their watch.

A clear choice

So who’s right today? Republicans focused on economic accomplishments as a precursor for further improvements, the normal driver of voter decision-making? Or Democrats attacking Republicans by zeroing in on people concerned over the access and affordability of health care?

Health care has become an issue of growing concern with voters because, in part, it has become an economic issue. The WSJ/NBC poll gave Republicans a 15-point edge with voters on handling the economy and Democrats an 18-point advantage on handling health care.

But without a cohesive policy agenda from Democrats, voters are left with no central focal point for defining the choice between the two parties. Without a clear policy agenda, the biggest green wave in the world can’t do anything to fill that void.

But as I have said before, Republicans need to be sure that they make the No. 1 issue the No. 1 issue for this election. And that’s the economy.

Setting up a clear choice is the final strategic challenge for both parties.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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