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What Issues Should Democrats Ignore In 2018?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today’s debate will center around this tweet from a political analyst:

So, we’re gonna try to do what Nate suggests here. The Republican side of this basically comes down to one person, President Trump — whatever he tweets or talks about stands in for the GOP’s message — so we’ll focus on Democrats today. In short: What topics/issues should Democrats focus on and what should they not focus on to set themselves up for the most success in this year’s midterm elections?

To give us a baseline, I made a list of topics by combining the options in Gallup’s “most important problem” survey and Pew Reseach Center’s “policy priorities” poll and then adding and subtracting stuff as I saw fit. (It’s surprisingly hard to make a list like this, so feel free to add stuff. Also, some of these obviously overlap.)

We have 100 “attention points” to divvy up between 34 topics. I’m going to unveil how I allocated them and then you all can refine and adjust. Ready?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Ready player one.

Ready aim fire.

Ready or not here I come.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Yup.

micah:

  • Corruption in government — 20
  • Trump’s behavior — 12
  • Situation with Russia — 10
  • Health care — 8
  • Civil rights — 8
  • Gap between rich and poor — 6
  • Immigration — 5
  • #MeToo — 5
  • Race relations/racism — 5
  • Elections/election reform — 5
  • Guns/gun control — 4
  • Criminal justice/police — 4
  • Environment/pollution — 2
  • Drugs — 2
  • Terrorism — 1
  • ISIS — 1
  • Trade — 1
  • Education — 1
  • Economy in general — 0
  • Unemployment/jobs — 0
  • Federal budget deficit/federal debt — 0
  • Taxes — 0
  • Corporate corruption — 0
  • National security — 0
  • Crime/violence — 0
  • Situation with North Korea — 0
  • Defense — 0
  • Abortion — 0
  • The media — 0
  • Care for the elderly/Medicare — 0
  • Social Security — 0
  • Energy — 0
  • Russia investigation — 0
  • Regulations — 0

I’ve thought this through carefully.

But, anything jump out to you as “WTF are you thinking, Micah!!!!”?

natesilver: Lol that’s a lot of issues

clare.malone: At first glance, the Russia stuff should get less attention.

natesilver: And this is purely for electoral expediency? Like, suppose I think criminal justice issues are really important, but not something that would influence the midterms much?

micah: Yes. To be clear, this is NOT importance. It’s just “best electoral message.” It’s not our job to tell people what issues should be important to them.

natesilver: OK, I think your list is really terrible then. Like, I literally think if I randomly assigned points, it would be better than your list.

micah: Make your argument!

clare.malone: Corruption seems like a great issue to run on. So I definitely agree with that receiving a substantial number of points. It’s also naturally tied to “gap between rich and poor,” which should get more points.

natesilver: First of all, you gave the most points to the vaguest stuff: corruption in government and Trump’s behavior.

clare.malone: They’re all vague, Nate!

micah: I mean, here was my general thinking: Given the news environment, you need to really hammer something to have it break through. So this list reflects what I think Democrats should hammer, and then I gave some points to a bunch of issues that are more definitional to the Democratic Party. To the party’s brand, that is.

But, Nate, you need to make an argument about where the points should go! You’re doing exactly what you criticized in that tweet.

natesilver: They should go to health care and to the Russia investigation — those are the most obvious ones. Assuming the Russia investigation includes firing the FBI director.

micah: It does. But so do other categories.

natesilver: Those two things — the health care debate and firing James Comey — are what moved Trump’s approval rating the most so far (down). I think health care needs 20 points, minimum.

micah: But given that Republicans mostly failed to pass a health care bill, can Democrats really campaign on that?

natesilver: Democrats have to talk about taxes more than ZERO, certainly — otherwise that cedes too much ground to Republicans. You’ve already seen the tax bill become more popular (although it’s still slightly unpopular on net) because Democrats have stopped talking about it.

Gun control probably needs to receive more than 4 measly points — it might not help that much with swing voters but will likely be an important way to rally the Democratic base and keep the GOP on its heels.

Although it seems to be going better for Trump recently, “situation with North Korea” probably deserves more than 0 points.

clare.malone: And we should clarify that the Russia investigation is separate from “situation with Russia.”

natesilver: Yeah, I don’t think much attention should be given to the geopolitical situation in Russia.

micah: So, here’s my argument on Russia: I think Democrats should mostly leave the Russia investigation alone — better to have special counsel Robert Mueller (a by-the-book Republican) be Trump’s antagonist on that than Chuck Schumer. But they should still try to keep it in the news, and they can do that with a focus on Trump “taking a soft line” (paywalled) on Russia internationally.

clare.malone: eh

natesilver: I feel like you’re overthinking this.

micah: That’s not an argument.

natesilver: You talk about Trump firing the FBI director — that’s what you talk about. And he’ll probably fire or pardon other people by the time we get to November.

Like, let’s say Trump fires Mueller — how many attention points does the Russia investigation get then?

clare.malone: But corruption in the administration is a really great way to play off the behavioral issues (like firing Comey, like tweeting) that plague the Republican Party of Trump.

And you can trickle down and say, “Look what a Republican Congress is putting up with in this administration.”

natesilver: Isn’t corruption pretty priced into voters’ views of Trump already? It doesn’t seem as “sexy” as Russia.

clare.malone: But what about Trump’s Cabinet and all its ethical problems? Didn’t he say he would drain the swamp?

natesilver: Maybe you can sorta make the argument that he didn’t drain the swamp, sure.

micah: See, I think Trump firing Comey and/or Mueller fits into corruption/behavior. Stay away from the collusion/interference in the 2016 election part of the Russia story, and weave Comey/Mueller/Cabinet shenanigans, etc., into a “Trump is corrupt against everyday people” narrative.

Nate, maybe you should give your own list?

natesilver: Well now we’re just debating semantics.

micah: This is a debate about messaging! It’s all semantics!

natesilver: OK here’s my list:

  • Health care — 20
  • Russia — 20
  • Gun control — 10
  • Election reform/civil rights — 10
  • Rich/poor gap — 10
  • Trump corruption — 10
  • Taxes — 5
  • Immigration — 5
  • North Korea — 5
  • #MeToo — 5

To explain a couple of these: Rich/poor gap is the Democrats’ best frame for talking about the economy. And I think election reform is a really important issue in the long run electorally for Democrats.

micah: What’s their message on health care?

natesilver: That almost the entire Republican Congress voted to repeal (suddenly-now-popular) Obamacare. And that Republicans will try again if they make gains in the Senate, etc. (Which could very well be true, BTW.)

micah: But they failed. (Mostly.)

Also, I think any time Democrats spend on the economy is fighting on GOP terrain.

natesilver: Which makes it an awkward issue for Republicans, because they have to promise their voters that they won’t fail again.

On the economy — I think you’re entirely neglecting the importance of defense.

micah: National defense?

The Department of Defense?

natesilver: No dude like DEEEEE-fence, not da-FENCE.

micah: Like the border wall?

clare.malone: So, my problem with your list, Nate, is that you give basically four issues even billing — gun control, election reform/civil rights, rich/poor gap and Trump corruption all get the same number of points.

One of those is going to have to lead, right? And I think the message of Trump corruption/propagating the gap between the rich and the poor should lead.

Those need … 15 points or so.

micah: Clare is right.

clare.malone: They’re more effective messages than gun control.

micah: Clare, you should give your list.

natesilver: I don’t think you’re giving enough weight to the fact that Democrats are super motivated by gun control right now. Especially young Democrats. So it’s a way to engender more turnout.

micah: I guess my main question is sorta: How valuable is a middle-tier issue?

Firing Comey, firing Mueller, attacking private companies, saying that we’ll send troops to the border — general instability and “besmirching” the office of the president.

natesilver: OK, but that’s like seven different things.

natesilver: Here’s my new list: Trump 80, GOP Congress 20.

clare.malone: Here’s how I would order them, without points:

  • Corruption in government
  • Gap between rich and poor
  • Regulations
  • Trump’s behavior
  • Health care
  • Race relations/racism
  • Guns/gun control

micah: You’re cheating!

clare.malone: OK, let me point one thing out: I moved regulations up. Democrats could really exploit that and talk about things that the Republican White House is allowing to get through: getting rid of EPA regulations that prevent corporations from polluting or getting rid of financial regulations — a move that might benefit Trump Cabinet members — etc.

natesilver: Wait … REGULATIONS? Are only Vox.com writers participating in the midterms?

micah: This chat is going off the rails. I’m inviting in Chad, FiveThirtyEight’s features editor, to save us …

chad (Chadwick Matlin, resident Micah antagonist): … at the risk of making this chat better, I have a question: Is there evidence about whether voters respond better to discrete events vs. the “aura” around a candidate/party? Russia, for example, is an aura issue, while corruption (depending on how you feel about various Cabinet officials’ actions) has discrete details to run against.

micah: To Chad’s point: I do think you’re wrong, Nate, that “corruption” is vague.

Part of the appeal there is that it has a lot of specifics …

Scott Pruitt.
Ben Carson.
Ivanka Trump.
Jared Kushner.
Etc.

And Clare … WE STILL NEED NUMBERS!

clare.malone: uuuuugh

Fine …

  • Corruption in government — 30
  • Gap between rich and poor — 20
  • Regulations — 5 (but it goes with the previous two, so it’s staying in this order)
  • Trump’s behavior — 20
  • Health care — 15
  • Race relations/racism — 5
  • Guns/gun control — 5

micah: I can get aboard with this ^^^

chad: How quickly you forget Tom Price, Micah.

micah: PRICE!

chad: And Steve Mnuchin.

Again, at the risk of grounding this chat: Do we know how much the “drain the swamp” message resonated for Trump? And WHO it resonated with? Because if it were reluctant Trump voters or independents, then perhaps Democrats can flip it and use it against the president.

clare.malone: That’s what I’m saying!

I think you could swing a portion of the Obama-Trump voters on that one.

natesilver: My guess is it resonated the most with relatively low-information voters — who are the sort of people who are less likely to turn out in the midterms either way.

micah: Well … this is from the 2016 exit poll:

chad: So maybe the better way to assign points is to look at what motivates the stay-at-home Democrats (the activists are coming out no matter what) and what wedge issues can be exploited among the indies and old-party Republicans.

natesilver: I mean, I think y’all are overcomplicating this.

As someone pointed out on Twitter the other day [Editor’s note: It was Vox’s Matt Yglesias], there’s currently a gap between Trump’s popularity and the generic congressional ballot — Trump’s numbers are worse than Republicans’.

Trump has a net approval rating of -12 points right now among likely and registered voters. Republicans, meanwhile, are more like a -7 or a -8 on the generic ballot — and almost all of those polls are also among registered voters — depending on when you look.

So from a very high level, the strategy is probably just to talk about Trump, and the things that most moved the needle on Trump last year were health care and Comey.

And then on top of that, talk about some of the things people don’t like about the GOP Congress — that Republicans are only out for the rich.

Then some gun control and #MetToo because those are important issues to excite the Democratic base.

And some stuff about voting rights because that’s a really important issue for Democrats in the long term and is a good way to frame civil rights discussions.

That’s my strategy.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the managing editor.

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