If Democrats want to regain the power they’ve lost at the state and federal level in recent years, they will have to convince more voters they can offer solutions to their problems.
That may be especially difficult, however, if voters think the party and its representatives in government don’t understand or care about them. And according to a recently released poll, many voters may, in fact, feel that way. The Washington Post-ABC News survey, released this week, found that a majority of the public thinks the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of average Americans in the United States. More Americans think Democrats are out of touch than believe the same of the Republican Party or President Trump.
A single poll shouldn’t be given too much weight on its own, but the results arrive at a time when Democrats are trying to understand what went wrong last year, and what they need to do to win over voters. The results raise questions over why exactly the public thinks the party is so out of touch.
“This should be a huge wake-up call,” said Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who made an unsuccessful bid post-election for House minority leader. “Having two-thirds of the country think that your party is in la-la-land, that’s a bombshell. That should wake everybody up,” the Rust Belt Democrat who represents a state that Trump won and has argued the Democratic Party needs to improve its brand said, “and we should, as a party, be woken up already by the fact that people took a chance on Donald Trump.”
Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, believes the party needs to make a clear case that it will fight for the working class. During the campaign, she urged Clinton to talk more about trade—a popular issue of Trump’s—and she vocally opposed the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal that Trump campaigned against. “Democrats need to be out front on trade, and show that we are going to protect workers,” she said. “This White House isn’t exactly walking their talk, but Trump understood that people had seen their jobs shipped overseas, and they were afraid.”
Representative Ryan thinks the party understands the financial hardship that many Americans face, and has better policy prescriptions to help them than the GOP. But he’s not convinced the party has persuaded voters of that: “It’s a real problem for us that we are perceived as limousine, latte-drinking liberals,” Ryan said. “Democrats can’t just message our way out of this. We need to put out bold and aspirational initiatives that will excite voters to the point they want to associate themselves with, and work for, the Democratic Party.”
Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington state who Sanders endorsed, believes it’s important for the party to demonstrate to voters that it will work for average Americans and not corporate interests. She hopes future Democratic candidates will reject super PAC money—as one way to ease any doubts that might otherwise exist in the minds of voters. “I don’t believe that everyone who takes money from corporations is corrupt, but I think that when people do accept corporate money, voters start to question whether they’re basing their votes on that money,” she said.
As Democrats strategize over how to convince Americans they understand their problems, the party may have to decide how much to embrace—or distance itself from—the legacy of its last president. And its broader legacy, too. If nothing else, the fact that so many Americans appear to believe the party is out of touch suggests an opposition message alone won’t be enough to win back power in Washington. In Jayapal’s words, the party “need[s] to rebuild trust with voters.”