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Trump’s Tweets Are Hurting Him With the Voters He Needs Most

It seems that virtually every day Donald Trump and his administration are embroiled in a new fiasco. The Mueller investigation is ongoing, indictments are coming out, and the president can’t help himself from picking fights on Twitter. His targets run the gamut, from the New York Times and CNN, to NFL players and ESPN hosts. There’s even friendly fire directed at fellow Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Ed Gillespie.

What Trump may not realize—and what new data shows—is that he may be tweeting his way into losses in 2018 and 2020.

Ten months into his presidency, the failure of any one single scandal to sink his administration has led some in the media to suggest that Trump is like “Teflon,” with the grime that would stick to (and ruin) other politicians simply slipping right off. But the numbers show that nothing could be further from the truth—Trump’s scandals aren’t just damaging him, they’re causing swing voters to reevaluate both his priorities and the very health of the economy.

The Messina Group recently completed a long-term research project looking at a specific group who helped decide the 2016 election: white voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but in 2016, did not vote for Hillary Clinton, instead choosing to either stay home or vote for Trump or a third-party candidate. What we found—combined with this month’s election results—should worry Trump and every ally who has hitched their wagon to his fast-burning star.

Among the swing voters most critical to his viability, Donald Trump isn’t just vulnerable, he’s harming himself. Even as Wall Street reaches new highs in profitability and Trump endlessly brags about his stock-market numbers, these voters aren’t seeing the improvement in their own lives. And, most worryingly for Trump and Republicans, the president’s outlandish statements cause the voters we spoke with to believe that he’s focused more on his own petty dramas than on improving their families’ lives.

Trump’s behavior and the endless parade of controversies he drums up? They’re how he loses.

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At the beginning of April, we convened an online focus group of voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who supported Obama but not Clinton. The overriding opinion expressed by the participants was that, yes, Donald Trump was racist, sexist, and offensive, but he was shaking up Washington and working to improve the economy. As one woman in Michigan put it, Trump “wants to change things that everyone has been complaining or talking about for years.”

It’s a belief that was underlined by the results of our polls from both July and October, which showed that key voters in these three states gave Trump much higher marks on his handling of the economy than his job approval—among this subset of voters, a late October poll had Trump at a net -23 points on job approval but only -7 on handling the economy. This trend is consistent with what public polls are showing; in the latest NBC/WSJ poll from the end of October, Trump’s job approval was -20, but his rating for handling the economy was +5.

That said, the white Obama-Non-Clinton voters we surveyed were clear: If the economy does not improve measurably, they are not going to give Trump a second chance—and they already have a clear reason to explain his failure: Twitter.

Consistently, the members of our focus groups worried that Trump was so pre-occupied with picking Twitter fights and the general chaos of his administration that he was not focusing on making the economy better. This sentiment is backed by quantitative data that offers a peek at Trump’s political kryptonite.

Based on the focus-group findings, we drafted four distinct messages about Trump and his handling of the economy. In one, we explained that he had stacked his cabinet with billionaires who weren’t looking out for everyday Americans; in another, we offered facts about the economy under Trump, including stagnant wages; in the third, we highlighted how Trump’s budget would cut programs important to the middle class and reroute the money into tax cuts for the wealthy. And finally, we tied his incendiary, all-hours tweets to his failure to bring jobs back to the U.S.

When exposing all voters in the survey to a tough message laying out the consequences of Trump’s tweeting—how it signals what he really cares about and prevents him from focusing his energy on making good on his promises to improve people’s lives—we found that the overall rating of Trump’s handling of the economy dropped by 6 points. And among the key Obama-Non-Clinton voter demographic? It dropped a staggering 21 points.

Similarly, when voters were told that Trump wants to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting programs for middle-class families, voters’ ratings of his handling of the economy sunk by 8 points overall and by an astounding 24 points among Obama-Non-Clinton voters.

Perhaps even more interesting is that when we re-surveyed Obama-non-Clinton voters six weeks later, those who’d been exposed to the tweeting message had a much dimmer view of Trump than those exposed to other messages.

The real-world application of these findings is clear: Voters might give President Trump a pass for individual outrageous statements, but if Democrats continually tie his pattern of remarks back to the economy, voters will not be forgiving. Progressives across the country should be driving this message relentlessly: Donald Trump is more focused on helping the rich and picking fights on Twitter then he is with making people’s lives better.

Since we started this research back in March, a debate has developed within some of the Democratic Party about whether we should focus on the white working-class voters or what pollsters call the “rising American electorate,” which is usually defined as Millennials plus people of color and unmarried women. And while I hope the recent election—in which Democrats rode a cresting tsunami of enthusiasm and engagement into office from coast to coast—will quell this debate, I want to reiterate that Democrats don’t need to adopt an either/or strategy, treating support from each group as though it’s mutually exclusive. Barack Obama won two presidential elections because he focused on both, and going forward, Democrats would be wise to remember the lesson of his example.

It’s true that Donald Trump is unlike any politician we have seen in a long time. Things that pundits say should sink him do not. He has thus far managed to rebound from even the most vile behavior.

But voters are only willing to go along with that so far.

When they realize that he is failing to deliver on the economy, the heap of fiascos he has piled up becomes evidence of what he has focused on instead. And then, Trump will be held accountable, just like every other politician.

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