Why Democrats May Want To Dial Back Their Optimism

Last week's DNC was unrelentingly upbeat, but many Americans are feeling less sunny.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), celebrate on the final night of the Democratic National Convention. Ordinary Americans aren't quite so enthusiastic about the state of the country, polling finds.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), celebrate on the final night of the Democratic National Convention. Ordinary Americans aren't quite so enthusiastic about the state of the country, polling finds.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA ― Democrats in Philadelphia last week seemed determined to make their convention look like the Happiest Place On Earth.

“I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your president, to tell you I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before,” President Barack Obama told conventiongoers amid a glossily produced lineup of personal narratives and celebrity cameos.

First lady Michelle Obama made a similar argument in her address. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again,” she said. “Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

It was a convention designed as a stark contrast to the one Republicans held the week before, which portrayed the country as being “at a moment of crisis” ― threatened by crime at home, terrorism abroad and a collapsing economy.

“The #DemConvention painted a bright picture of America—filled with diversity, love & hope,” the campaign for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted this week. “The RNC was...different.”

Democrats had good reason for the sometimes aggressively feel-good tone of their convention. Obama, who’s gained steadily in popularity throughout the 2016 campaign, wants to ensure his legacy as a transformational president. And Clinton is eager to publicly assume the mantle of a leader whose popularity currently exceeds hers.

But some Democrats worry that, to disaffected voters hungry for change, talk about the current greatness of the United States may sound like an endorsement of the status quo. The level of optimism on display in Philadelphia risks overshooting the national mood ― few Americans seem to be that happy with the direction the U.S. is moving ― and ignoring the success both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) found in appealing to a sense of public dissatisfaction.

In a HuffPost/YouGov survey taken after the Democratic convention, 72 percent of voters said they believed Clinton thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 87 percent believed Trump thought things were on the wrong track. Most ― 64 percent ― agreed with Trump.

Among the voters who think the country is on the right track, 91 percent say they trust Clinton more to keep it heading that way. But of the voters who think we’re heading in the wrong direction, 54 percent think Trump is the candidate to steer the country back on course.

“People talk about how they know the unemployment rate is down, but they don’t feel better. It still costs a lot of money to get an education, transportation, healthcare,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said during a panel last Thursday.

“I think there is a tendency, particularly for incumbent presidents, to want to talk about their accomplishments, to talk about what they’ve done…[but] you do have to be careful not to go so far on, ‘We’ve come a long way and we’re doing great,’” she continued. “It makes you seem tone deaf to the problems people are facing.”

Republican pollster Greg Strimple echoed her sentiments.

“I’m watching the Democratic convention this week, and I’m thinking that I’m watching Reagan ‘84, ‘It’s morning in America again,’” he said. “When you have a new cycle that’s dominated by things like Dallas and Nice and Germany and beheaded priests and we’re sitting here listening to Philadelphia where everything’s great, the American people are saying, ‘Not so.’”

The disconnect comes, in part, because the rank-and-file Democrats who attended the convention are largely positive, both personally and politically. Most say they’ve seen both the national economy and their own lives improve in the eight years since Obama was elected. Many delegates had nothing but praise for the president, blaming their few disappointments on the Republican Congress.

But increasingly, the personal outlook of Americans is divided along party lines. While Democrats mostly think the country is going in the right direction, Republicans and independents overwhelmingly believe things are going off course.

“Both parties are struggling to tell a story about who the country is and where it’s going that includes everybody,” Robert Jones, the chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, told the Christian Science Monitor.

And, as the success of messaging from Sanders and Trump demonstrates, much of the public is looking for a change, even if they’re not quite united on what that change should look like. Fifty-six percent of Americans want the next president to take the country in a different direction rather than continuing Obama’s policies, according to one recent poll, but just 12 percent expect Clinton to strike out on a new path.

The atmosphere leaves Clinton in a predicament similar to the one Obama faced during his 2012 re-election campaign, when he sought to take credit for an improving economy without alienating the voters who hadn’t personally experienced a boost.

That year, a group of Democratic strategists called on Obama to shift his talking points to acknowledge the troubles many Americans still faced, telling him in a June 2012 memo that “the current narrative about progress just misses the opportunity to connect and point forward.”

The group, Democracy Corps, issued a similar message in Philadelphia last week, warning that the “upbeat economic message ignores...the public’s personal experiences in the economy.”

Another Democratic firm, Global Strategy Group, called on Clinton to both own her experience in Washington and recognize the nation’s remaining problems.

“Voters believe that the system is broken. But this election isn’t about who can point that out the loudest. It’s about who can fix it,” they wrote in a memo released Wednesday. “Democrats need to show what they’ve done to prove that they can do even more.”

Clinton tried to balance those competing narratives in her acceptance speech Thursday, pivoting from praising Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to one of the more downbeat notes in her speech:

“We’re still facing deep-seated problems that developed long before the recession and have stayed with us through the recovery. I’ve gone around our country talking to working families. And I’ve heard from so many of you who feel like the economy just isn’t working,” she said. “Some of you are frustrated – even furious. And you know what? You’re right. It’s not yet working the way it should. … Democrats are the party of working people. But we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.”

Why President Obama’s Legacy Matters This Year

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country doesn’t seem to have much value in predicting the next president, as The New York Times’ Nate Cohn recently noted. Far more useful are Americans’ attitudes toward the current president and the state of the economy, which, when good, tend to translate into a win for the incumbent party.

Such indicators are, at the moment, also jumbled. Consumer sentiment, a long-running index that measures Americans’ confidence in the economy and their own finances, is at Reaganesque levels. Employment is on the rise, while gas prices are low ― two factors that should give the incumbent party an advantage, according to Moody’s Analytics.

But for every positive bit of data, there’s a negative statistic to counter it. Americans’ confidence in the economy remains “subdued,” per a Gallup poll. That impression probably won’t be helped by a lackluster new economic report. Faith in most of the nation’s institutions is at a near-historic low.

In a HuffPost/YouGov survey taken during the Democratic convention, voters as a whole were close to evenly split on whether Obama’s legacy would help or hurt. The state of the economy and foreign policy, though, were both largely seen as negatives. And Americans’ overall feelings about the government was perceived as one of Clinton’s greatest liabilities, second only to the controversy over her emails.

Alissa Scheller/Huffington Post

By other measures, Obama’s legacy looks like an overall boon for Democratic candidates at every level. While both Clinton and Trump are disliked by a majority of the country, most Americans see Obama positively, with his approval rating making him roughly as popular as Ronald Reagan was at this point in his presidency.

Party officials are enthusiastic about the current strength of the Democratic brand overall. The party’s ratings are, on average, higher than they’ve been since at least 2012, as opinions of the GOP have plummeted.

While Republican candidates for lower office are shying away from campaigning with Trump, down-ballot Democrats are far more enthusiastic about the prospects of tying themselves to Obama or one of his surrogates.

“There are places in the country that Obama can and will be a very effective campaigner, where his legacy is strong and positive, and, where I think for down ballot candidates, his campaigning actively would be a significant positive contribution,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview during the convention.

“One of the great things about being a Democrat in these elections is sort of the embarrassment of riches of having folks who are going to be out there campaigning hard who are currently senators, who are current or former presidents or vice presidents,” he added.

Even the Democrats warning against an overly optimistic message last week couldn’t resist slipping in a occasional positive note of their own.

Democrats, said Greenberg, the pollster, “will do better when there’s an aspiration built on some optimism as opposed to an aspiration built on negativity and chaos and crisis and darkness.”

The HuffPost/YouGov polls cited each consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted July 24-26 and July 31-August 1 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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