Trump is trapped in the same political rut that sunk Mitt Romney

Donald Trump
Gary Cameron | Reuters
Donald Trump

Donald Trump is enjoying a post-convention bounce in the polls after a forceful acceptance speech last week. But that doesn't change an underlying dynamic of the presidential race so far: the Republican nominee is mired in a political rut strikingly similar to Mitt Romney's from four years ago. He has to do more than take the lead in a couple polls to undo that.

At this time in 2012 Romney was trailing President Obama in most polls in the low to mid-single digits, a harbinger of his 51 percent to 47 percent Election Day defeat. Then as now, the economy was voters' top concern, but Romney could not gain an edge on the subject. The exit polls gave him just a one-point advantage over Obama on the question of who would do a better job handling the economy, a question he needed to win handily if he were to oust an incumbent president.

A mobile survey taken before the party conventions of more than 3,000 likely voters by consumer analytics startup InfoScout modeled on the turnout patterns of 2012 found that Hillary Clinton is actually narrowly beating Trump on the economy question. She also wins among the voter groups that check off either unemployment, rising prices, or the housing market as their top economic concern. Trump only won among those who chose taxes as their top economic concern. Why is Trump struggling in territory where he should be excelling?

Put simply, for all his unconventionality, Trump still can't break out of the box that Obama and the Clintons have trapped the GOP in for the last eight years: a party of fat cats that leaves the little guy behind. The narrative stems from the 2008 financial meltdown, an event that turned Obama's fortune from around even odds to overwhelming favorite over John McCain. When asked to give the keynote speech for Obama's reelection, Bill Clinton at the 2012 Democratic National Convention told the nation, "They want to go back to the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place." It worked.

Hillary Clinton goes even further on Trump than her husband did on Romney. She accuses Trump of being someone who sought to profit off the housing crisis as a real estate developer and who is inclined to cause a repeat of it as president. "He wants to roll back the financial regulations that we have imposed on Wall Street to let them run wild again," she told a Southern California audience recently. Expect her to use more of this rhetoric in her acceptance speech on Thursday night.

"Trump still can't break out of the box that Obama and the Clintons have trapped the GOP in for the last eight years: a party of fat cats that leaves the little guy behind."

The Clintons' scare tactic is predictable but powerful. Voters never stopped blaming George W. Bush and the Republican Party for the catastrophe of 2008. And they have not seen the GOP change on economic policy to wipe the slate clean. It's why the Democrats have consistently won the lower income voter bloc and Trump is losing it today. This has afforded the Democrats extra slack on the economy and made it plausible for Hillary Clinton to run for the third term of a president who has never had a single year of 3 percent GDP growth.

Trump for his part at least recognizes the problem he starts out with as the Republican nominee. He has continuously talked about the inequality that accelerated under President Obama and has made a critique of both parties' records that stretches back to the year 2000, when median household income peaked and manufacturing employment started its rapid decline. But his speech in Cleveland dwelled on crime rather than the economy and went on so long that viewers checked out (Trump actually drew a lower television rating than Romney's 2012 acceptance speech).

On the solutions side, Trump is still searching for antidotes. His proposal to revive manufacturing is to renegotiate free trade agreements and potentially apply tariffs. Nearly half of respondents in the InfoScout survey were undecided about this prospect, even though Trump has been talking about it for a year. The follow-through that Trump has described – replacing the trade negotiators and litigating in the World Trade Organization – isn't much of a rallying cry. The rest of Trump's economic agenda, tax cuts and deregulation, are similar to what Romney offered and don't attract lower income voters. Trump needs to win the under-$40,000-income set but is losing it by ten points, according to InfoScout.

The biggest economic problem facing the country is one that no politician talks about: rising prices. In 2012, voters listed rising prices about equal with unemployment as the top economic concern. The jobless rate was 8 percent then but is just 5 percent now. When the same question was asked by InfoScout, respondents chose rising prices as their biggest economic problem by a wide margin. Even though high inflation hasn't occurred, voters are beleaguered by what they have to pay for medical care, clothing, food, and other everyday expenses.

The good news is that Trump has the creativity and willingness for risk-taking to throw the long ball. Instead of merely scapegoating anonymous trade negotiators, he should pulverize the Federal Reserve. Its central bankers created the easy money policy that caused the housing crisis and the persistent rise in consumer prices. Ending the Fed's ability to flood the economy with artificial credit – most of which ends up going to government and big business rather than small borrowers – is a more responsive and credible solution to voters' top economic concern than forging into the byzantine world of trade bureaucracy.

Trump is unlikely to win the election without a decisive edge on the economy. But he's yielding voters' foremost economic problem – rising prices – to Hillary Clinton. He has to battle with her on this new front to avoid his worst nightmare of meeting the same fate as Mitt Romney. Trump is fond of relying on the polls, and that's what this one says.

Rich Danker is principal of Kiowa Strategies, a Washington-based public affairs practice. He previously ran a super-PAC supporting Ted Cruz for president. Follow him on Twitter @westofthe4O5.