Democrats are missing an opportunity to brand Trump as too conservative, poll suggests

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In his 2016 campaign, President Trump ran as a relative moderate among Republicans — opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare, talking up federal efforts to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, staying away from culture war issues such as same-sex marriage.

But in office, Trump has aligned himself firmly with his party’s right wing. His acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was a leading tea party member of Congress, one of numerous top officials who would have been deemed too conservative for past Republican administrations. Trump has pursued efforts to repeal and undermine the Affordable Care Act, toed the National Rifle Assn. line on guns and reversed a host of environmental rules, some of which were first adopted under the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations.

And, yet, the evidence suggests that the public still sees Trump as the relative moderate of his campaign, not the hard conservative of his government. That points up a failure of his Democratic opponents and a dilemma for whichever of them wins the 2020 nomination.

CHAOS DROWNS OUT POLICY

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The latest evidence on how voters view Trump comes from this week’s USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll, which asked a large sample of adult citizens to rate themselves, the leading Democratic candidates and the president on a 0-100 scale, with 0 as the most liberal and 100 as the most conservative.

Democratic voters rated Trump as moderately conservative, at 66. Independents rated Trump as even closer to the center, at 60, pretty near the 53 average they gave themselves. For comparison, those independent voters rated Joe Biden at 43. In effect, their ratings indicate that they see Trump as only slightly further to the right of center than Biden is to the left.

Republicans, by contrast, view themselves as quite conservative and see Trump as one of their own. They rated themselves, on average, at 75 and Trump at 74.

What accounts for Trump’s relatively moderate image among Democratic and independent voters? One strong possibility is that the constant turmoil and personal drama surrounding Trump tends to drown out attention to his policies.

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That, in turn, points to an issue Democrats have wrestled with almost as long as Trump has been at the center of the political stage: Do they run against him as an ideological figure or as, in effect, a freak?

Hillary Clinton‘s campaign in 2016 chose the latter course, focusing on the most outlandish aspects of Trump’s behavior and deliberately down-playing his ties to the Republican Party. Their hope was to win over Republican-leaning voters by campaigning against Trump’s personality, not his party.

That strategy may have achieved some results: Clinton did better than previous Democrats in formerly Republican suburban areas where upper-income, college-educated voters couldn’t tolerate Trump’s antics.

In the end, however, Clinton’s strategy failed because a large number of voters found both candidates unpalatable, and the majority of them decided to go with the guy who promised a change from the status quo.

Since Trump took office, a lot of Democrats have continued the Clinton strategy, emphasizing aspects of Trump’s personal behavior they see as disqualifying. They’ve focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election, allegations of corruption and self-dealing, and the constant examples of Trump’s erratic temperament, all of which go the the issue of fitness for the job.

But with a couple of exceptions, Democrats haven’t devoted nearly as much consistent attention to Trump’s policies.

Immigration is one topic that has gotten a sustained focus, and polls show public opinion has shifted to the left on the issue since Trump took office.

Healthcare is another: During the fight over Obamacare repeal in 2017, Democrats helped generate enough public pressure on moderate Republicans to kill the administration’s plan in the Senate. The next year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants made healthcare the centerpiece of the Democrats’ campaign to retake control of the House. They flipped 41 seats en route to taking the majority.

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Pelosi repeatedly has counseled her members to focus on unpopular conservative policies, rather than on the president’s personality. This week, on the morning of the Democratic debate, she offered similar advice to the candidates.

“I discourage members and candidates from ever even mentioning the president’s name,” Pelosi told reporters.

Hewing to such a strategy would require Democrats to pay less attention to some issues that many on their side feel strongly about — allegations that Trump has enriched himself by encouraging foreign governments to patronize his hotels, for example.

But the tradeoff could be worth it: Trump has made clear that he intends to portray whoever wins the Democratic nomination as a candidate of the extreme left. The polling data indicates that Democrats still have running room to depict him as a president of the far right.

POLLING THE DEMOCRATS

The question about voter ideology also provides added insight into how Democratic and Republican voters see themselves.

Among Democratic voters who have a favorite candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden‘s supporters rated themselves the closest to the center, an average of 45. Sen. Elizabeth Warren‘s voters rated themselves the furthest to the left, at 25. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ backers rate themselves as somewhat less liberal than Warren’s, at 33.

All the groups, however, saw Sanders as the candidate furthest to the left. Regardless of where they placed themselves on the scale, the various Democratic factions each saw Sanders as more liberal than they were.

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Warren and Biden were tied among the most liberal quarter of Democratic voters. Biden had a solid lead among all the others. He had support from about a third of Democrats who put themselves at or near the ideological center or right of center.

That includes a lot of black voters. African Americans placed themselves fairly close to the center, with an average score of 45. White Democrats rated themselves as more liberal, especially white college graduates, who give themselves a score of 34.

Keep in mind, these numbers measure self-perception. The fact that black voters see themselves as more centrist than white college graduates see themselves does not tell us where either group might come down on a specific issue. But it does give us a sense of why they choose the candidates they support.

Biden got the backing of 34% of the black voters in the poll, about as much as the other candidates combined, with a large share still undecided.

The former vice president also continues to do best with voters older than 65 and relatively poorly among the young. Among 18-34-year-olds, he got 15%. That’s good enough for second place with those voters, but only about half his average support level.

Sanders’ support shows the opposite pattern: He leads the pack in the 18-34 age group, but his backing drops off sharply among voters 45 and older, falling to 3% among those older than 65, the poll found.

Republican voters not only have a different ideological position from Democrats, they see the scale differently. They were much more likely than Democrats to claim an extreme position for themselves, with a large number pegging themselves at or near 100 — the most conservative possible. Relatively few Democrats described their ideology as near the most liberal end of the scale.

The Republicans also viewed Trump and the Democratic candidates as further apart ideologically than the Democrats viewed them, placing Trump further to the right and the Democratic candidates further to the left.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT

The Democratic debate in Houston seems unlikely to have changed those dynamics. As Janet Hook wrote in her debate analysis, several of the second-tier candidates made credible cases for themselves, but they likely did not stop the drift of the contest toward becoming a three-person race.

The debate notably showed how far the politics of gun control have moved on the Democratic side, as Evan Halper and Seema Mehta noted in their account of the night. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke became the first significant candidate in a televised debate to call explicitly for confiscation of a class of firearms. But even Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who staked out the moderate position on the issue, advocated a voluntary buyback — an idea that goes far beyond anything President Obama ever advocated.

But as far as the basic dynamics of the race, it’s hard to say anything major happened.

Warren solidified her position among liberals, strongly defending the Medicare for all position that she shares with Sanders. But she didn’t do much to build the support among black voters she will need if she’s to overtake Biden.

The former vice president had a couple of his trademark stumbles — especially an odd and easily mocked line about record players — but, as Mark Barabak wrote in summarizing the debate, “for the most part he credibly defended himself.” For a front-runner who has a broadly favorable image among the party’s voters, that’s probably enough for now.

Before the debate, Halper looked at the tough road for the trailing candidates soldiering on in obscurity. Melanie Mason and Barabak examined the problems of Sen. Kamala Harris‘s campaign and why she needs to recapture the magic her supporters saw early.

My colleagues also looked at some of the candidates’ new proposals, including Harris’ criminal justice plan, which proposes legalizing marijuana, ending bail and eliminating the death penalty, and Warren’s call for better Social Security benefits paid for by another tax increase for top earners.

Ten candidates didn’t meet the criteria for being in the debate. Here’s what they were doing instead.

And Mason and Matt Pearce looked at one of the constraints that all the debaters face: attacks make some primary voters cringe.

LABOR TAKES ON TECH AND WINS A ROUND

The California Legislature has sent a bill rewriting the state’s employment law to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The law would establish new ground rules about which workers can be considered independent contractors and which must be treated as employees. It’s a strong constraint on the gig economy, and some leading tech companies, especially Uber, fought hard against it.

That puts some high-profile Democrats with allies in both labor and the tech industry, including presidential candidates, in an awkward bind. Harris is the most notable: Her brother-in-law is the public face of Uber in the fight.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Democrats will debate again in a month, this time in Ohio. All of the candidates on stage in Houston have qualified for the October face off. So has Tom Steyer, the billionaire who wants to impeach Trump. His presence brings the total to 11, which presumably means a two-night debate. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is also close to qualifying.

Steyer’s candidacy raises some questions, notably whether a billionaire has a place in a party that is increasingly suspicious of great wealth. Michael Finnegan looked at Steyer’s tax returns and the issues they’ll raise.

YOU SAY IMPEACHMENT

Democrats in the House can’t agree on what to call their impeachment inquiry, and maybe that ambiguity suits them, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

Meantime, Congress is back to work with a very short window to accomplish some big tasks, notably navigate another government shutdown deadline and, perhaps, find agreement on some form of gun legislation.

TRUMP OUSTS ANOTHER ADVISOR

Trump rid himself of John Bolton, his third national security advisor, whose departure removed a strong dissenting voice on some of Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy moves, Chris Megerian and Eli Stokols wrote. And, sure enough, the day after firing Bolton, Trump suggested he might soften sanctions on Iran.

Trump and Bolton quarreled on several topics, but the breaking point seemed to be Trump’s willingness to meet with the Taliban, as Megerian and David Cloud wrote.

WHY DO WE PAY SO MUCH FOR MEDICAL CARE?

All year, Noam Levey has been chronicling the impact that rising insurance deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs have had on American families. This week, he looked at how vastly different the experience is in other countries where patients can go to the doctor without navigating huge bills. What’s at the root of the difference? The answer is not what you might think.

TRUMP GETS A WIN IN COURT

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trump on his asylum ban at the southern border. As David Savage wrote, the court’s 7-2 vote didn’t decide the question of whether Trump’s order to effectively eliminate nearly all asylum claims was lawful. But the justices said the ban could go into effect while the issue is being litigated. Since the legal cases could easily take up the rest of this year and next, that’s a huge victory for the White House.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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david.lauter@latimes.com