In 2016, a New York City real estate developer who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars managed to win the presidency after convincing thousands of Rust Belt voters that the daughter of a textile salesman was an untrustworthy elitist because she gave a few paid speeches to a Wall Street investment bank. Four years later, some of the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president are retreading the populist path that runs roughshod over Wall Street.
The candidates hope bashing big banks still resonates with voters, but they’re also broadening the message to include other economic issues that divide the haves from the have-nots. “The last three presidential elections have all been Main Street versus Wall Street, and — increasingly — about the Rust Belt versus Wall Street,” said Andy Green, managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress.
Barack Obama won in 2008 amid a financial crisis that seemed to catch his GOP rival John McCain flat-footed. He won again in 2012 by defining Mitt Romney by his past as a private equity fund manager, the type of plutocrat who gets rich by cutting jobs.
As he promoted trade protectionism and promised to tax Wall Street, Donald Trump managed to turn one of his largest liabilities — his gaudy wealth — into an asset, claiming that only someone who had successfully manipulated the rigged economic system could fix it for the forgotten working man.
“Trump made all those people — who didn’t have a raise in 30 years, who were frustrated about their lives, [frustrated] that their rural communities are falling apart — feel good about themselves,” said Robert Creamer, a strategist at Democracy Partners. “He affirmed them, and that’s why so many of them stick with him come hell or high water.”
Creamer said Democrats need to win back those voters by beating Trump at the populist game. “For a candidate to win in the general election — not just the primary — he or she needs to make economic inequality and the need to increase the wages of ordinary people a major focus,” Creamer said.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are building their campaigns around such a message. Sanders has railed against corporate greed since his days as a political curiosity in Vermont: Burlington’s socialist mayor.
Now one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, he hasn’t let up. “This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country, and I am talking about Wall Street,” he said at a New Hampshire rally in March. “If you think we’re going to get affordable loans to small business, you’re going to have to deal with Wall Street and start breaking up these huge banks.”
Sanders has called for increasing tax rates on millionaires, instituting a financial transaction tax, and reducing tax breaks on capital gains and dividends. He’s also called for a 15 percent cap on consumer interest rates, breaking up the nation’s largest banks, and sending corporate executives to jail when their companies break the law.
Warren, who calls herself “a capitalist to my bones,” goes further left on some policies than Sanders.
She’s proposing a 2 percent wealth tax on assets of more than $50 million, and 3 percent over $1 billion, to pay for universal child care, alleviate $1.25 trillion in college debt and expand debt-free tuition at public institutions.
Warren also says that lowering the estate tax threshold from $22 million to $7 million would help pay for other large spending proposals, like her $500 billion affordable housing bill.
Other candidates have adopted some of these populist elements. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is pitching a return to the estate tax levels of 2009, or $3.5 million.
Sen. Kamala Harris boasted about taking on five Wall Street banks when, as California attorney general, she negotiated a larger settlement for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis than other states.
While many candidates have chosen to run down a populist route, not every Democrat agrees with that strategy.
“There is a lot of concern about income inequality, a lot of concern about the role of Wall Street,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and head of the Mellman Group. “But it’s also true that the antipathy to Wall Street isn’t quite what it was a few years ago.”
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Other pollsters doubt it’s even a viable lane out of the primary.
“I don’t think anti-Wall Street sentiment is an animating principle of a majority of the Democratic electorate,” said Zac McCrary, a partner at ALG Research.
Indeed, leading with economic messages means taking on Trump on what might be his strongest ground.
The unemployment rate in April hit its lowest level — 3.6 percent — in nearly 50 years. For the first time in decades, real wages have grown, led by gains among the lowest-paid workers.
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 51 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, while only 41 percent disapprove.
The president clearly has seen the polls, saying he will “be running on the economy.”
However, the antagonism to the wealthy and Wall Street polls well: Morning Consult found 61 percent of voters — including 50 percent of Republicans — favored Warren’s wealth tax, and a Business Insider survey showed nearly 70 percent of Republican primary voters supported Sanders’ 15 percent cap on interest rates.
More than any particular policy position, Democratic primary voters are concerned about one thing: electability. A survey by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way found that 65 percent of voters would back whomever they believed had the best chance of beating Trump, versus 28 percent supporting the candidate matching their policy preferences.
Electability arguments have lured moderates into the race. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is running as a Democrat who can win in Trump territory.
Holding office in a swing state was enough to convince Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper to join the race.
And so far, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has benefited from Democrats’ overarching concern, taking a commanding lead in the polls since formally announcing in April.
These moderates have so far resisted the party’s antipathy to Wall Street. Of the seven senators running, only Bennet, a former executive with Anschutz Investment Co., voted for a law enacted last year that dialed back regulations imposed on Wall Street following the financial crisis.
Biden has chided Sanders and Warren for ragging on the rich. As a senator in Delaware, where many banks and corporations nominally locate headquarters for tax purposes, Biden developed close ties to the financial industry. And Hickenlooper, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, warned that “the far left calls for massive government growth and even socialism.”
Democrats would be better off keeping their focus on issues like health care that helped them win 40 House seats in the 2018 midterms, said Steen Kirby, Bold Blue Campaigns’ chief pollster.
“People are not looking to punish the wealthy or punish the rich, they’re not looking to fundamentally change the economic system,” said Kirby. “They want to be rich too — or at least they want to have opportunity.”
Still, others believe unabashed economic populism — animated by antipathy towards Wall Street — is the way to win back the electorally critical Rust Belt states.
“Working-class voters are the swing voters in the United States right now,” said Mike Lux, also a partner at Democracy Partners. “And they don’t see the economy as coming up like roses; they see a very tough road for their families.”
Lux points to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 7-point win and Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s 11-point victory in Wisconsin, both in 2018, as proof that attacking the excesses of the financial industry is a winning message in red and purple states.
And even if voter hostility toward the financial industry isn’t what it once was, Lux said, taking a few shots at their expense can’t hurt. “I have not seen a single poll in the last 10 years — not a single one — that indicates that bashing Wall Street is in any way unpopular,” he said.
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