OPINION — Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of average independent American voters in fly-over country where next year’s election is likely to be decided. Many, if not most, are probably feeling trapped by what amounts to a constant barrage of white noise coming out of Washington these days.
Ukraine. Doral. Impeachment. Syria. Schiff and Pelosi. Hunter and Joe. Trump and Trump. Impeachment. Secret hearings and secret Russian “assets.” Impeachment.
The media can’t get enough of it. Most people have had enough already.
We’re only a few months away from Iowans heading to the caucuses. Where’s the talk about health care, how to fix it and, especially, how to pay for it? Where’s the media interest in jobs, wages and candidates’ plans to grow the economy and not simply tax it? How about the most fundamental political argument of all — socialism versus capitalism.
Where’s the focus of this roller coaster of a campaign on serious issues because, believe me, independents are seriously unhappy with the direction and tone of the 2020 election so far.
Locally, you see proof of that in the town halls and candidate forums in key states across the country. Sure, there are questions about impeachment, but there’s a lot more interest in kitchen-table issues. Yet the media continues to focus on the “gotcha” aspects of this presidential campaign, not the meat of the issues driving voter decision-making.
Pick your issues
As we move toward next year’s election, one of the most critical strategic dynamics now in play is how each party chooses to address key issues with the electorate. Will the Democrats be able to balance kitchen-table issues with their focus on impeachment? Will Republicans get back to an economic agenda centered on keeping the economy moving forward? Or will both parties and the media continue to focus on their priorities as they hammer each other in increasingly harsh tones?
What direction Republicans and Democrats take in the next few weeks may well be decisive a year from now. We’ve seen it before. In 2010, President Barack Obama opted to use his political capital on health care when voters, especially independents, put the economy and jobs at the top of their presidential “to do” list. Democrats lost a net of 63 House seats that year and their majority.
In 2018, President Donald Trump made immigration the central theme rather than effectively making the case for the strong economy and his economic policies behind it. Nor was the health care issue addressed, which had risen in importance for voters. Republicans lost a net of 40 seats and their majority.
A little more than a year from now, both parties will face another electorate with very definitive views on what matters to them and their families.
In our most recent Winning the Issues survey (Oct. 18-21), we asked voters to tell us the most important issue to them in deciding who to vote for Congress. The top issue for Republicans was immigration at 25 percent with the economy/jobs second at 19 percent, reflecting what has been the view of the GOP base for a number of years. For Democrats, their most important issue continues to be health care at 25 percent, with the economy/jobs coming in second at 18 percent.
When it comes to the party bases, conservative Republicans put immigration at 29 percent and the economy/jobs far lower at 17 percent. Liberal Democrats, like their party as a whole, say health care is their top issue at 25 percent but put climate change second at 19 percent. Moderate Democrats also have health care first but put the economy/jobs second with 18 percent.
These are not unexpected results, especially for liberal Democrats who are driving the party’s agenda at every level. But independents told us it was the economy/jobs issue (26 percent) that was most likely to push their vote. Health care was second at 17 percent. What these numbers show is that both parties and especially their bases simply aren’t on the same page as independents.
It’s important to put some context here. Voters see many issues as very important to them. The key is how they prioritize these issues in terms of whom they are going to vote for, particularly unaligned independents who want clarity from candidates and political leaders. And simply put, they’re not getting what they want.
The challenge for both parties is how to have an effective discussion with independents on matters that will make a difference to them because neither party’s base is large enough to win a majority by itself, a fact often lost on campaign consultants on both sides.
Both parties are guilty of putting more emphasis on base issues than on what independents care most about. Generally, the electorate has heard from Republicans more about immigration than any other issue, despite a good economy.
With Democrats controlling the House, there has been a kind of randomness to what the electorate is hearing from Republicans that has not been helpful. Republicans often find themselves in reactive mode, whether to the president’s latest comments or actions or to the daily impeachment headlines driven by a secretive, partisan process.
The media is no friend of Donald Trump. That’s indisputable. But their preoccupation with political minutiae and all things impeachment puts Democrats at a disadvantage. In the Democratic presidential debates, for example, the issues of health care and the economy have together only accounted for less than one out of four questions asked.
Democratic partisans in the base may find the debates on-topic for them, but they are definitely off-topic for independents.
So is impeachment. With the Mueller report dominating media coverage for two years and the Jerry Nadler/Adam Schiff show grabbing media attention for the past few months, Democrats haven’t been able to reach voters, especially independents, with an effective message on key issues. Instead, the Mueller report and impeachment have been the dominant narratives, both seen as partisan by much of the electorate, independents in particular.
Base Democrats may be getting what they wanted with impeachment, but they are sacrificing precious time that could be used to make their case to independents. That situation isn’t likely to change until these independent voters hear something of substance from Democrats, which is why the Schiff “parody,” among other impeachment missteps, was such a disaster for them.
Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been showing increasing irritation with reporters over the place she and her party find themselves in, if her recent pressers are any indication.
A headline in The New York Times last week, after Pelosi met with her caucus to discuss an impeachment inquiry vote, says it all, “Democrats Fear Impeachment Is Blurring Their ‘Kitchen Table’ Focus.” After the meeting, a frustrated Pelosi asked journalists, “Any questions about our legislative agenda?” There weren’t many, the Times reported.
This wasn’t the first time the speaker has tried this tactic, but Pelosi’s irritation is misplaced. Her party has been demanding impeachment almost from the moment Trump took office. This year, before the election, could have been a time to reach out to voters, particularly independents, with ideas and solutions that make sense and a record that engages rather than frustrates voters.
Instead, Democrats have chosen impeachment. I guess the old adage applies: Be careful what you wish for.
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 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.