PHILADELPHIA — Imagine for a second that you’re Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
Clinton is about to deliver a major address to a crowd in a critical swing state, and your speechwriters hand you two different versions of what she could say in the section devoted to the economy.
Option one has Clinton railing against corporations and calling for a fundamental transformation of a broken American economy. "Too many are wedded to the failed theory of trickle-down economics. Too many CEOs move jobs overseas and prioritize short-term shock prices over long-term investments in their workers," the prepared remarks say. "I have a plan to rewrite the rules of the American economy so it works for everybody, not just those at the top."
But option two offers a different picture. It instead says that things are steadily improving in our economy, and has Clinton calling for the next president to continue advancing Barack Obama’s policies. "Thanks to [Obama’s] leadership and the hard work of the American people, we have created 14 million new jobs," it says. "The task for the next president is to build on President Obama’s accomplishments."
On the one hand, the first option sounds like it would appeal more to Bernie Sanders supporters and economic populists. On the other hand, President Obama is wildly popular with minority voters, and Clinton really needs them to turn out on Election Day.
Veteran Democratic pollster Steven Greenberg says it’s an easy choice. His research indicates that option one is the winning strategy by a landslide, performing better with voters nearly across the board.
Voters want Clinton to say the economy is broken
The lines above are actually sections directly lifted from speeches Clinton has already delivered.
Earlier in the campaign, Greenberg set out to discover which message resonates most strongly with American voters. On Thursday, he presented his findings at a forum hosted by the Roosevelt Institute during the Democratic National Convention in downtown Philadelphia.
Greenberg said his results were overwhelming: Americans are eager for a presidential candidate who characterizes the economy as stacked against the middle class in favor of the rich. Framing Clinton’s policies as necessary to "rewrite the rules of the economy," his research showed, proved significantly more popular than framing them as necessary to continue Obama’s economic legacy.
That was unsurprisingly the case for millennials, who viewed Clinton’s policies more favorably by about 15 percentage points when given the first message. But it was also about equally true for African Americans. Minorities were also about 15 points more likely to favor a message about reinventing the economy than the one stressing continuity with Obama, Greenberg’s research found.
"We can really touch millennials and key groups with a powerful economic framework that is unsparing when it says the economy is not working," Greenberg says.
He found that to be the case across the board. Even college-educated women, the group that already supports Clinton more than any other, still become more likely to do so when her economic message focus on breaking a system increasingly rigged by corporate interests. Among those who don’t like either Trump or Clinton, the economic populism argument bolsters her support by 12 points.
Erasing Donald Trump’s polling edge on the economy
Despite his post-convention polling bump last week, Donald Trump is losing the race for the presidency.
But he does have some potential advantages going into November. Chief among them, Greenberg noted, is that the American public still generally regards the Republican Party as stronger on the economy than the Democrats. On the question of who is better on the economy, Trump leads Clinton by about 4 points, according to Greenberg.
Greenberg’s research suggests a way of changing that. In an experimental study, Greenberg gave voters competing arguments for the economic policies of both Trump and Clinton. He also gave different participants the two different explanations for why Clinton’s policies were necessary.
When the participants heard Clinton’s message about "rewriting the rules of the economy," Trump’s advantage on the economy disappeared. Under that approach, Clinton did better on which candidate would do more to improve the economy, create new jobs, and even "make America strong again."
Exactly why is not all that hard to understand. Americans are pissed as hell about what’s going on in the economy. "The starting point for people is that what they think is happening is that CEOs have been reaping huge salaries, huge benefits ... not investing in their own companies — and then using their money to buy lobbyists and politicians to shape what government does," Greenberg says.
Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, who was also speaking at the Roosevelt Institute panel on Thursday, argued that the voters are right about this. (Stiglitz, a key Clinton backer, has also argued that Clinton’s policies will effectively tackle widening inequality head on.)
"People want to hear an economic message that goes at the corruption of the political system," Greenberg said. The question for tonight is whether the Democratic presidential nominee is eager to deliver it.