Mellman: Trumping peace and prosperity

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In 1952, Republicans successfully urged Americans to “Vote for peace; Vote for prosperity; Vote for Ike” (Eisenhower).

Even before then, those two sets of issues — peace and prosperity — have been paramount in presidential elections and our politics more broadly.

That seems to be changing, at least temporarily.

The pervasive influence of those two categories is reflected in myriad academic models that use indicators of each to predict electoral outcomes for both presidential and congressional elections with uncanny accuracy.

The great debates have not been around whether those are the key issues, but about how and when to best measure them, whether prosperity is more personal or national, and which other factors also bear on electoral outcomes.

It doesn’t take fancy statistics or arcane measurements to see their influence. 

For many years, Gallup has asked Americans which party is the better in each arena and those results have been consistent with election outcomes.

In 12 of the 17 presidential elections since 1952, the party more closely identified with prosperity won the White House. 

When the party of prosperity lost, security issues were central and the party leading on that dimension emerged victorious.

Going into 2004, the first post-Sept. 11 presidential election, for example, Democrats held a narrow 4-point edge on prosperity, while the GOP had a massive 15-point lead on security. George W. Bush won.

In 1968, Democrats had a similarly narrow lead on prosperity, but Vietnam topped the agenda and Richard Nixon opened up a 19-point advantage over Hubert Humphrey on peace. 

In this sense (only) 2016 was a “normal” election: The Republicans led, albeit narrowly, on both peace and prosperity and won the White House, while of course losing the popular vote.

What’s striking today is that the GOP still leads on both indicia, but President Trump is polling well behind his well-known Democratic rivals. Both clauses in the preceding sentence may result in some head scratching.

In Gallup’s September reading, Republicans have a 4-point advantage as the party of prosperity and a 6-point lead on peace/security.

The first figure will only come as a shock to Democrats who see the economy as a key GOP vulnerability. 

I’ve argued here that while voters are distraught by inequality, in relative terms, they are happy with their economic lot and the condition of the country as a whole — a fact reflected in the GOP advantage on prosperity.

It’s more surprising that a party constantly criticized for an erratic and unskilled foreign policy is perceived to be stronger in that arena than Democrats.

More shocking still, while the GOP is the party of both peace and prosperity (albeit narrowly), voters like the Democrats better.

It’s not that people love either party—both are net unfavorable according to Gallup. But while Democrats are net unfavorable by two points, the GOP is net unfavorable by 12.


It’s pretty simple, really. While the GOP may be the party of peace and prosperity, it is also the party of Trump.

RealClearPolitics shows the president is now 15 points net unfavorable. In match-ups, on average, he’s running 7 points behind Joe Biden and 5 points behind both Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Both Democrats and Republicans can glean some lessons here.

Democrats would be wise to temper their optimism about 2020. Yes, we now see lots of positive data. But parties don’t lose presidential elections when they lead on both peace and prosperity.

Republicans should realize that Donald Trump is the cause of their failure, not the key to their success. 

The GOP did far less well than it could have in 2018 because of Donald Trump and will likely underperform at every level in 2020 because of Donald Trump.

Narcissist that he is, he’d like hearing this, though it’s actually bad news for him, but Trump’s become more important than peace and prosperity.

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 and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gallup Joe Biden Polling presidential elections

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