Sunday’s Washington Post-ABC News poll did not contain a lot of surprises. President Trump remains historically unpopular, but the GOP almost universally supports him. Most voters still do not believe that Trump has the temperament to serve effectively as president. And like past presidents, respondents are split on whether Trump is keeping his promises. So far, so expected.
But one finding in Sunday’s poll is a departure from past polls: The vast majority of Americans now think the Democratic Party is not “in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States.” The current number — only 28 percent think the party is in touch — has been noted elsewhere, and that number is concerning enough on its own: It’s 10 percentage points less than the number of people who think Trump is in touch and 4 percent less than the number who think the GOP is. But what hasn’t been commented upon is even more worrying for Democrats: In 2014, 48 percent of voters felt the party was “in touch,” a 20-percentage-point collapse in just three years.
Yes, just three years ago the country was split down the middle about whether Democrats understood voters’ concerns, while only a quarter of voters thought the same about Republicans. Any reckoning of where the party goes from here has to account for this change in the public’s image of the blue party. Worse, it’s likely that the collapse has mostly come among independents and Democrats themselves — three quarters of independents and nearly half of Democrats think the party is out of touch, which can’t help turnout. Politics should not be about blindly following poll numbers, but when so many of your own supporters are rejecting the direction Democrats are moving, they may want to reconsider the course.
Why the drop-off? Given that it came in the past few years and that the Democrats’ numbers on this question previously tracked with President Barack Obama’s numbers, I would suggest that the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ new standard bearer was one factor. (Whether or not people feel it’s fair to describe her as “out of touch” doesn’t change the fact that Clinton staffers were worried about it.) Whatever the reason, the solution, luckily, is straightforward: Embrace policies that help people and are popular with both the Democratic base and the broader public. Some obvious places to start include expanding Social Security, increasing infrastructure spending across the country and lowering prescription drug prices. And when I say embrace policies, that means trumpeting them in headlines, not squirreling them away in the “Policy” section of a website, burying them underneath cutesy jabs at Republicans or relegating them to one paragraph of a 20-minute stump speech.
Remember, despite dismal numbers like these, the Democratic caucus still controls nearly 200 congressional seats and 48 Senate seats, and most midterms in a president’s first term swing against the party in the White House. The Democratic Party’s problems run somewhat deeper at the state level, which cannot be ignored, but nationally it will not take much for Democrats to recapture one or both houses of Congress by the end of Trump’s term. Restoring the party’s image is essential to its success.
Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.