Politi­cians aren’t as dumb as we think they might be

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist

Let’s posit three rules of po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis. First, data are bet­ter than pre­sup­po­si­tions. Sec­ond, ac­tual votes cast can tell us more than the polls. Third, even when we care­fully ex­am­ine the facts, we’re all vul­ner­a­ble to seek­ing con­fir­ma­tion of what we be­lieved in the first place.

On the ba­sis of these rules, some widely ac­cepted as­sump­tions about our po­lit­i­cal mo­ment can be seen as, at best, in­com­plete.

Democrats, it’s of­ten said, are so ob­sessed with Pres­i­dent Trump and the Rus­sia scan­dal that they talk of noth­ing else. But any­one who spent Tues­day lis­ten­ing to a reg­i­ment of po­ten­tial 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates present their case at the lib­eral Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress’ Ideas Con­fer­ence can tes­tify that this is sim­ply un­true.

At­tacks on Trump were far less prominent than prom­ises re­lated to eco­nomic jus­tice and warn­ings about the ways in which the United States is fall­ing be­hind other parts of the world. When Trump did come un­der fire, it was usu­ally on health care, his lop­sided tax cut for cor­po­ra­tions, or ad­min­is­tra­tion cor­rup­tion out­side the con­text of the Rus­sia in­quiry.

If you want to ar­gue that the holy grail of “a per­sua­sive and uni­fied Demo­cratic mes­sage” has yet to be dis­cov­ered, well, sure. Still, you could hear be­hind many of Tues­day’s speeches echoes of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 slo­gan, “Let’s get Amer­ica mov­ing again.” The idea was that Trump and the GOP are ig­nor­ing the prob­lems most vot­ers care about, or are mak­ing them worse.

And as The Wash­ing­ton Post’s lib­eral blog­ger Greg Sar­gent has in­sisted, any­one who ex­plores what Demo­cratic can­di­dates on the ground are cam­paign­ing on will no­tice how much they’re em­pha­siz­ing bread-and-but­ter con­cerns.

Can­di­dates — on the whole, any­way — aren’t stupid. They look at sur­veys such as the Kaiser Health Track­ing Poll last week, which re­ported that the top three issues on vot­ers’ minds in bat­tle­ground states and dis­tricts are gun pol­icy (23 per­cent), the econ­omy and jobs (20 per­cent) and health care (also 20 per­cent). Politi­cians who want to win act ac­cord­ingly.

And Democrats rec­og­nize that the re­lent­less fo­cus of the news me­dia on the Rus­sia scan­dal (and Trump’s own Twit­ter feed) will do a lot of the work of rous­ing their base in out­rage.

Which leads to the need to qual­ify an­other pop­u­lar as­ser­tion: that there has been an uptick in Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity. There is truth here. His ap­proval rat­ing is up about 5 points in the Real Clear Pol­i­tics av­er­ages from six months ago — but as of Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, it still stood at an ane­mic 43.2 per­cent.

And what’s un­changed is the fact, as David Byler wrote ear­lier this spring in The Weekly Stan­dard, that “Amer­i­cans who don’t like Trump re­ally don’t like him.” Those who strongly dis­ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance sig­nif­i­cantly out­num­ber those who strongly ap­prove.

Turnout in Tues­day’s Penn­syl­va­nia pri­maries tilted Demo­cratic, a good sign for the party, but it’s also true that regis­tered Democrats sub­stan­tially out­num­ber regis­tered Repub­li­cans in the state. In Ohio’s May 8 pri­maries, on the other hand, Repub­li­cans out­num­bered Democrats, although the GOP had a large regis­tra­tion ad­van­tage go­ing in and Democrats could thus claim to have per­formed rel­a­tively well.

The two big swing-state pri­maries sug­gest that while the Democrats en­joy an ad­van­tage this year, its size is still very much in ques­tion.

Un­der­stand­ing 2018 re­quires ac­cept­ing that the news cy­cle is not the same as the campaign cy­cle and that all elec­tions in­volve a mix of mo­bi­liza­tion and per­sua­sion.

The in­tense dis­like of Trump means that mo­bi­liza­tion will play an es­pe­cially large role this year. But few Democrats — in swing ar­eas and among would-be pres­i­dents — are count­ing on an­i­mos­ity to the pres­i­dent to do all their work for them.

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