Mellman: Popularity vs. impact

Halloween has passed, but I’m about to share some of the most frightening data for Democrats I’ve seen in what’s already been a scary season.

First, let me put it in some context.

Democrats are now arguing about whether the party should talk about policies that are popular.

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As I wrote last week, elections are rarely just a clash of platforms. But issues are part of the puzzle.

While it’s certainly better to be talking about popular agenda items than about those that are unpopular or talking about nothing at all, popularity is just one criterion — an important one, but only one.

Two other related criteria are impact and interest. Do voters feel the policies will actually help them, hurt them, or are the proposals simply irrelevant to them personally?

Amplifying messages requires voters to be interested enough in the policies to talk about them with friends and neighbors.

I don’t have data on interest, but the Federal Reserve Bank of New York provided us with some frightening data on impact.

It boils down to this: relatively few voters think Democratic policy prescriptions will benefit them. They’re popular — people like them — but voters don’t think the policies will be of much help to their families.

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Take raising the minimum wage. Sixty-two percent favor raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, according to a Pew poll, with 38 percent opposed.

With less than one percent earning the minimum wage, we might suspect few would feel the impact.

But I’m proud to have helped win minimum wage hike initiatives in several states, in part by arguing that doing so raises everyone’s wages.

The Federal Reserve asked Americans whether their households would be helped or hurt by increasing the minimum wage or whether it wouldn’t have any impact on them.

Twenty percent believe increasing the minimum wage would benefit their household, while 17 percent think such a change would hurt them.

Popularity and impact are two different dimensions.

The truly frightening numbers for Democrats? Despite their popularity, relatively few of the economic policies we advocate are perceived by voters as helping them.

Just 10 percent think free universal preschool would help them, with slightly more expecting to be hurt by that policy (12 percent expect to be affected negatively).

Only 13 percent would be helped by parental leave (8 percent say they’d be hurt).

Student debt forgiveness rivals the minimum wage in impact. Twenty percent say their household would benefit from that proposal, with 13 percent expecting harm.

The Fed did not test the full panoply of Democratic policy initiatives, ignoring, for example, negotiating for drug prices, which, in an earlier column, I demonstrated retained overwhelming popularity, even after the arguments were made against it.

Nonetheless, the Fed did examine a range of ideas, and one can only conclude that while many of the items on Democrats’ economic agenda are popular, we have not presented a platform voters think will help them and their families.

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To ramp up the fear, match those modest upsides against some downsides.

More Americans believe their households will be hurt by raising the top tax rate than believe they will be helped by most of the positive items on Democrats’ agenda.

Twenty percent say they’d be hurt by an increase in the top rate, while 49 percent claim they would be negatively affected by an increase in the capital gains rate (an increase discussed but not included in the House-passed version of Build Back Better).

And right now, people see those tax increases coming. Fifty-six percent think the top rate will increase.

It’s not just the rich hollering. Across all income categories, Americans expect to be paying nearly 5 percent higher taxes next year than they did this year.

A meaningful economic platform needs not just productive and popular ideas but also proposals voters believe will help them meet the challenges they face.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.