Mellman: A populist revolt?

Mellman: A populist revolt?
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Don’t get me wrong. The pollsters at The Washington Post are extraordinary. But even extraordinary people aren’t perfect.

Consider the headline attached to their poll a few days ago: “Populist economic frustration threatens Trump’s strongest reelection issue, Post-ABC poll finds.”


The article goes on to report, “President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE’s strongest case for reelection remains the country’s healthy economy, but the potency of that issue for him is complicated by a widespread belief that the economy mainly benefits people already in power, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finds. The result previews a fresh wave of populism that could reshape yet another presidential campaign.”

Last week I described just how strong a case the economy is for President Trump.

The Post’s analysis of populism, though, is built on a question asking voters whether they “think the economic system in this country mainly works to benefit all people or mainly works to benefit those in power?”

Sixty percent say the country’s economic system mainly benefits those in power.

At first blush, that seems like strong support for suggesting a potential populist revolt.

But is it? How would we know?

Is 60 percent a large number responding this way or a small number; something typical or out of the ordinary?

In ascribing meaning to polls, we tend to think about 50 percent as a dividing line, because our elections are decided by simple majorities.

But the 50 percent mark is not necessarily the key indicator of substantive significance.


The meaning of poll responses can be derived in two ways. One is by (at least) correlation with particular events. The other, by comparisons across time and space.

For example, if no president has ever gotten reelected with an approval rating under 49 percent, a rating lower than that would be a sign of problems. And at 42 percent, Trump clearly has problems.

On the other hand, since Watergate, with exception of the post-Sept. 11 period, no more than 44 percent have expressed trust in the government to do the right thing. And in the last decade the number has been mostly in the teens.

So, for this question, 40 percent or even 35 percent would be a high number, indicating real change in public attitudes.

Poll numbers have no inherent meaning. Rather they can be assessed by their ability to predict events or their relative magnitude.

Returning to the Post’s “populism” question, if 60 percent were a record high for this question, there may be some reason to expect it represents bad news for Trump. If it’s a record low, less likely.

Pew has asked a nearly identical question several times before. The lowest they’ve ever recorded is 62 percent saying “the economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests.”

That 62 percent was measured in both January 2014 and February 2015.

Was the election in between — in November 2014 — the kind of populist revolt the Post is suggesting might occur in 2020?

Republicans won the national House vote by about 7 points and picked up 13 House seats. Ten Democratic incumbents lost their seats, as did two Republicans.

On average, the president’s party loses about 25 seats in midterms.

So in 2014, when a similar number of Americans said the economy was unfair, there was no sign of populist protest sweeping either Republicans or incumbents out of office.

Of course, in 2016, by many accounts, there was a populist revolt.

Then the number who thought the economy was unfair was the highest on record — 66 percent. But that’s just 4 points above the view in the “calm” election of 2014.

Are we to believe that the difference between populist revolt and the status quo is 4 points?

It’s possible — water is liquid at 33 degrees and solid at 31.

More likely though, most Americans have thought the economic system is unfair for a while and that perception doesn’t necessarily affect election outcomes.

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.