Pollster to Dem Candidates: Focus on Mueller Indictments

Pollster to Dem Candidates: Focus on Mueller Indictments
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With the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference now in its second year, Democratic pollsters are offering the party a way to hone a persuasive counterargument to President Trump's revved up rhetoric against Robert Mueller: talk less about the 2016 election and more about indictments handed down thus far.

A new survey by Navigator Research, a group of top Democratic strategists and public opinion experts, finds that while 97 percent of Americans have heard about the Mueller probe, nearly 60 percent don't believe it has uncovered any crimes.

The ongoing investigation has so far resulted in two dozen indictments, including that of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a couple of campaign associates have pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. But the findings of the Navigator survey indicate that while most Americans say the investigation should continue, they don't think it has produced much so far.

Some Democrats worry that sentiment could lead to a downturn in public support for the investigation if left unchallenged. And they point to the president's coalition of supporters on Capitol Hill and in conservative media who have effectively denigrated the investigation as a witch hunt, muddying perceptions of the special counsel.

This week, the president has claimed that federal officials "spied" on his campaign, and ordered the Justice Department to investigate the use of an FBI informant who contacted campaign staff. On Thursday, Trump and Republican lawmakers will meet with officials from the FBI, DOJ, and intelligence agencies to discuss classified material related to the informant.

Republican congressional candidates have embraced Trump's rhetoric, and other polls show increasingly negative views held by GOP voters about the probe. Some surveys have shown a dip in public support for Mueller’s investigation.

"There is a real information and education challenge for progressives to make sure more people learn that there is a 'there' there," says Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. "Does it mean it's going to be the focus of an entire ad campaign? Probably not. But there are real arguments that are impactful to voters and ways we can win this argument if we engage."

Democratic pollsters say the more persuasive way to engage voters on the issue is to focus less on Russian meddling in the election and more on the criminal charges that the Department of Justice has brought forth. They argue that the latter evokes results while the former appears to rehash an election that voters have already moved on from.

The group found that centering messages on the results of the probe and the question of whether Trump is hiding something garnered more support than messages about Russian meddling or about Mueller himself.

The survey asked respondents whether they agreed more with one of two statements: that the investigation should continue because no one, not even the president, is above the law or that the investigation has gone on too long and should be shut down. Sixty-three percent agreed with the former; 31 percent cited the latter.

In another message test, the pollster asked if the probe, based on the discoveries it has already made, should continue; 59 percent of Americans say it should while 41 percent said it has gone on too long and should be ended.

But when asked about their concerns that shutting down the probe would lead to further Russian interference in elections, the margin curiously narrowed: 56 percent said it should continue and 44 percent said it should end.

"For those trying to connect with Americans about the investigation and its future, an important first step is reminding them it has already resulted in serious criminal charges for people very close to Trump," the pollsters write in a memo explaining the results.

They acknowledge that Mueller himself has become a polarizing figure, and that public opinion of him is mixed. Surveys suggest that describing him as an experienced former investigator and prosecutor and that he served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama is significantly more compelling to voters than describing him as a life-long Republican or former head of the FBI.

Democratic strategists and operatives still maintain that focusing on the economy, health care, and various costs of living are key motivators for voters and should be front and center in campaigns. Navigator released similar surveys last month showing a roadmap for Democrats to talk about the economy. But strategists say that views of the special counsel probe as it relates to Trump's orbit and behavior as well as concerns about government corruption can be part of a bigger picture aimed at persuading voters to change course and turn out for Democrats in November.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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