Addressing income inequality has catapulted to the top of the issues likely to dominate the political and policy conversation through 2016. Democrats in particular have staked their ground on policy priorities such as raising the minimum wage.
But is “inequality” the right economic message to win broad-based support for an agenda aimed at narrowing the gap between rich and poor?
New research by the Democratic research firm Global Strategy Group suggests “growth” is a far more effective frame, and one that is especially appealing to independents and “swing” voters. In fact, their research finds, “candidates who emphasize ‘economic equality’ or ‘economic fairness’ lose badly to candidates who emphasize ‘economic growth.'”
We spoke with Global Strategy Group Vice President Joe Hickerson, who led this research:
R3.0: Give us the bottom line.
Hickerson: Growth was very clearly something that voters wanted, much more than equality and even opportunity. It didn’t matter if we called it “economic growth,” or “growing the economy,” just having those four letters, “G-R-O-W,” really stood out as important to people.
R3.0: What’s the difference between “growth” and “opportunity”? Why would “growth” be more appealing?
Hickerson: These are not oppositional ideas – they go together. But “opportunity” is a vehicle, whereas “growth” is the goal. If your end goal is opportunity, but we’re all sitting stagnant, that doesn’t do much. But if we have growth and opportunity, everyone has a shot to succeed and we are all moving forward.
R3.0: Are there vulnerabilities in an “inequality” message?
Hickerson: We tested [messages] in stages. We tested “inequality” versus “fairness,” and “fairness” won. But when [we tested] formulations between “more economic fairness” versus “more economic growth,” growth wins 59 [percent] to 37 [percent] – by 22-points.
When you ask if you want a candidate who’s focused on “less income inequality” versus a candidate who wants “more economic growth,” the candidate who’s focused on less income inequality loses by 64 points – 80 [percent] to 16 [percent]. That’s a huge difference.
R3.0: Do you have a theory about the underlying psychology going on there? Is less income inequality a proxy for certain policies that voters don’t like?
Hickerson: We started with a whole list of things about what should be priorities for Congress and leaders to focus on. “Economic growth that benefits all Americans” was the highest priority for people – 78 percent think that should be a priority.
At the bottom were “address income inequality” and “narrow the gap between wealthy and low income Americans.” Fifty percent of people say it’s a very important priority, but that’s dramatically lower than the 78 percent who [prioritize] “growth that benefits all Americans.”
People view “narrowing the gap between wealthy and low-income Americans” as helping one group and hurting the other. With the “growth” formulation, you’re benefitting everyone and everyone moves up, as opposed to forcing some people to move down while others are moving up.
The reality is that everyone wants to move up, and for the most part, Americans don’t begrudge those who are successful and whose success has led to more wealth. They want the same opportunities for themselves and for their kids.
R3.0: Can you talk about partisan or ideological differences that came to light in testing “growth” versus “opportunity”? In particular, is this message more appealing to “moderates” or other “swing” voters?
Hickerson: That’s one of the reasons why we believe this is so important. When you frame the minimum wage around opportunity, [you] win that fight at the overall level, 53 [percent] to 47 [percent]. But among independents, it’s a two-point margin, 43 [percent] to 41 [percent]. In pollster language, that’s a tie.
When you frame the argument for a minimum wage in terms of growth, the difference is dramatic. Where we won by 2 points among independents when it’s the “opportunity” formulation, we win by 13 points when it’s “growth.” And among “nonpartisan undecideds,” it’s even more dramatic. We win it 53 [percent] to 28 [percent] – or by a 25-point margin. “Growth” is clearly the way to go.
R3.0: What are the limitations, then, of using “growth” as a frame? Are there any policies that wouldn’t pass muster with the public?
Hickerson: It’s all a question of degree. The last item that we included in the list of policies [that we tested] is fixing the health care law – Obamacare. Less than a majority believed that would lead to more growth – 46 percent.
We tested things that we thought people could conceivably believe lead to growth – but the range goes from 46 percent of people believing that fixing the [Affordable Care Act] would lead to growth to 76 percent who said that about making college more affordable.
R3.0: It’s clear that you’re talking about a tactical change, and not a substantive one, but are there any tradeoffs between being known as the party of growth versus the party of reducing inequality?
Hickerson: What’s so encouraging about this data is that we don’t have to choose. People believe that creating more opportunity for people is essentially the same thing as addressing income inequality.
The only change you make is talking about what will be the ultimate end result. If we increase the minimum wage, that gives everybody more opportunity. It also leads to more growth.
Voters believe in very large numbers that all the things that happen to be the agenda for the Democratic Party – from college affordability to making seniors’ retirements more secure to [developing ] alternative energy sources – lead to more growth.
That leads us to the final conclusion that if people see growth as the most important priority, they also believe that all the things [Democrats] want to enact lead to growth. So [Democrats] can be framing all of these things in that way.
Read the full report from Global Strategy Group HERE.