Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz has an interesting op-ed on last week’s surprising UK election in today’s Washington Post. The surprise was not that the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, won but rather their overwhelming margin of victory. Nearly every pre-election poll had the governing Tories in a dead heat with Labour and turnout – Luntz thought – was likely to be low.
Yet the Conservatives emerged with nearly 100 votes more than their loyal opposition and the percentage of voters turnout increased since the last general election in 2010.
Luntz offers three lessons from the erroneous polls. 1) How voters perceive the economy is critical. 2) Citizens ultimately do care about elections. 3) The level of trust that a candidate engenders is along with the economy paramount. Let’s examine each lesson and see if we can glean any insights into the the Presidential election coming up next year with specific reference to front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
It’s the economy stupid. In many ways the British economy has mirrored ours over the past five years. As of January 21, unemployment in the UK was at 5.8% its lowest level in 6 years. Likewise, real wages are rising albeit slowly. This record was enough for the British electorate to maintain confidence in the management ability of the Tories. For Democrat Hillary Clinton, this is undeniably a good sign as the United States has benefited from 62 straight months of job growth under the Democratic Obama administration and real wages are rising here. With the numbers showing our economy moving in the right direction, Presidential voters are likely to resist a change in party.
Voters care about elections. This lesson is perhaps the least apparent of Luntz’s takeaways. The percentage of voters rose only 1% despite a hotly contested election. Still turnout at over 66% was the highest number since 1997. So – and this is where Hillary Rodham Clinton should really sit up and pay attention – what policies did the prevailing Tories champion that apparently motivated so many Britons to vote for them?
With respect to economic policy, the victorious David Cameron campaigned as a populist sometimes to the left of Labour. For example, Cameron called for an extension of the “right to buy” home ownership policy which makes public sector working-class rental apartments available for long-time tenants to purchase at below-market rates. He also promised to support exempting minimum wages from income tax and to increase to 30 hours per week the amount of free childcare available to working-class families. In contrast, Labour opposed extending “right to buy” on the ground that it reduced available housing for lower-income Brits and supported “only” 25 hours of weekly free childcare.
Perhaps the most salient difference between the Tories and Labour was their stance on the UK’s membership in the European Union (EU). If reelected, Cameron promised to hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU. In contrast, Labour leader Ed Milliband campaigned against withdrawal.
The lessons here for Hillary Clinton seem abundantly clear. She should not fear moving left to head off progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders. Instead, she is likely to benefit from adopting a more populist tone in support of more widespread home ownership, tax relief for low-income Americans, and perhaps most importantly against the Trans Pacific Partnership – which can be fairly seen as a proto-European Union.
Trust is paramount. Luntz notes that pre-election, pollsters reported that just as many voters said that they would vote for Labour as the Conservatives. But he also points out that a significantly greater number of likely voters said they trusted Cameron more than Milliband. From this discrepancy, Luntz conjectures that when likely voters say they find one candidate significantly less honest that candidate may underperform. It is easy to see why a Republican operative would argue the criticality of a candidate’s credibility since this may be Hillary Clinton’s greatest weakness.
The latest CBS/New York Times poll offers positive and negative news for Clinton on this front. 80% of Democrats but only 48% of the electorate as a whole find her to be honest and trustworthy. While Luntz is a partisan Republican, his advice to Clinton is spot on. He recommends that in her upcoming testimony before Congress on Benghazi and her email practices while Secretary of State and after, she needs to present a wholly forthcoming and transparent demeanor.
Conclusion. Hillary Clinton and her supporters should view the surprisingly large Tory victory in the just-concluded British election with cautious optimism and go to school on it as well. Just as the British kept the party in power that has overseen a reasonably strong recovery, the American electorate is very likely to favor the Democratic Presidential nominee next year. To the extent a viable liberal challenger emerges, Clinton can probably move in a more populist direction without much risk of alienating other supporters. Finally a gentle suggestion: Clinton’s credibility received a needed boost when she replaced her former campaign manager oily Mark Penn with highly regarded progressive John Podesta. Now, she needs to lose hitman David Brock and fixer Lanny Davis. Every time one of them speaks for Clinton, their duplicity rubs off on her.