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With anti-populist push, Republicans inadvertently help Dems

On the economy, Dems have a perception problem -- and Republicans are inadvertently taking steps to give them a hand.
Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (R) and National Economic Director Gary Cohn (L) participate in a news conference to discuss the tax reform...
It's as counter-intuitive as it is baffling: a significant number of voters who backed Barack Obama in 2012 switched in 2016 to support the Republican who spent years pushing a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted yesterday, Democratic strategists are focusing not only on understanding why, but also on steps the party can take to bring these voters back.

Top Democratic pollsters have conducted private focus groups and polling in an effort to answer that question, and they shared the results with me.One finding from the polling stands out: A shockingly large percentage of these Obama-Trump voters said Democrats' economic policies will favor the wealthy -- twice the percentage that said the same about Trump.

Greg relied on reporting Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, which conducted focus groups of Obama-Trump voters in Wisconsin and Michigan, states that backed Trump after decades of supporting Democratic presidential tickets. Among the most surprising findings was the 42% of Obama-Trump voters who said "congressional Democrats' economic policies will favor the wealthy, vs. only 21 percent of them who said the same about Trump."In other words, for a sizable chunk of voters, Trump's faux populism con worked. Enough voters fell for the scam to put him in the White House.Findings like these have, not surprisingly, led to quite a bit of conversation among Democrats and progressive-minded observers about what the party can and should do to change public perceptions, most notably with this constituency. It's an important endeavor -- the party's future may very well depend on it -- and Dems would be wise to take it seriously.It's also true, meanwhile, that Republicans appear to be going out of their way to tell the public that the GOP's sole focus is on serving the needs of the elite.Consider the thread tying together a variety of recent reports, just from the past few days:* Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs veteran, spoke to an audience of Wall Street managers in Beverly Hills yesterday, telling his audience, "You should all thank me for your bank stocks doing better."* Republicans on the House Finance Committee are moving forward with legislation, called the "Financial Choice Act," which if passed would "do more to deregulate the banking industry than any single piece of legislation in a generation."* Donald Trump's White House released a tax "plan" last week -- it was really just a one-page outline -- that summarized the president's intention to slash tax rates on the very wealthy and corporations.* Trump and GOP lawmakers continue to move forward with a health care plan that would slash Medicaid and other benefits that go to struggling families, while giving the rich an enormous tax cut.Short of literally changing the party's name to "We Only Care About The Elite," I'm honestly not sure what more Republicans could do to convince the aforementioned Obama-Trump voters that their impressions are mistaken. The GOP, from the White House to Capitol Hill, has abandoned any sense of subtlety. After months of rhetoric about the "forgotten man," Republicans have effectively declared, "Yep, we've forgotten him."To be sure, Greg's report about the Priorities USA focus groups is an examination of how current events are perceived, not how they are. Democrats may fight for a minimum-wage increase, health care benefits for the working class, and improved access to higher education, but if voters still see Trump, the billionaire celebrity, as the one who's focused on the interests of hard-working, middle-class Americans, Dems will lose. In an election, what's true is often far less important than what the public thinks is true.And while Democrats need to take these lessons to heart, they can also exploit the opportunity Trump and his Republican allies have created. Which party's economic policies favor the elite? Just over the last few days, GOP policymakers have answered the question in unmistakable ways.