February 09, 2015

Now that the dust has settled on President Obama’s State of the Union address, we wondered if a certain phrase he used, “Middle Class Economics,” was as effective in the real world as it was in the grand chamber of the House of Representatives. 


As my colleague Jenn Dahm smartly pointed out here, most Americans consider themselves middle class, even if the hard realities of grade school math make that impossible.  Surely, then, the president’s choice of words was a smart way to let everyone hear what they wanted to hear from the very same phrase. 


After some thought, we decided to put that theory to the test.  Would the president’s newly minted catchphrase catch on?  Or could he have said something even more resonant?


We conducted two one-question surveys with completely different samples to see if simply changing the phrasing would make a difference in people’s perception of what the president said or could have said. 


According to our online language study, it turns out Jenn was right.  Just over half of Americans surveyed (54%) agree with the statement “The president’s plan to focus on Middle Class Economics will make my life better.” Interestingly, women—a critical voting bloc for the president and his party—were somewhat less enthused by the phrase, causing only 45% of female respondents to agree.


As smart language goes, Middle Class Economics does the job: it gets more than half of Americans to agree on something important at a time when agreement on anything political is exceedingly rare. 


But, could the president have delivered an even more powerful line? 


Based on years of research and countless conversations with Americans, we thought so.  In fact, we wanted to see if the phrase “Main Street Economics” could gain even more agreement. 


We asked people the exact same question, but we changed a single phrase so it read, “The president’s plan to focus on Main Street Economics will make my life better.”  When asked this way, overall agreement shot up to 61%, a full 7 points better than the president’s own words.  And, among women, agreement went up 5 points to 50%. 

Why the difference?  When so many people think of themselves as middle class, how could a phrase tailor-made for that mindset be less compelling than Main Street Economics?   


Though many Americans think of themselves as middle class, the phrase “middle class” is politically divisive.  It gets tossed around by both parties to mean whoever they want it to mean at the time.  


Main Street, on the other hand, doesn’t speak as clearly to Americans’ unease with issues of class and “class warfare.”  It’s more inclusive because it doesn’t seek to separate people into groups based on income or other social factors.  It’s also more visual: I can see myself as someone living on Main Street, USA in a way that being a part of a nebulous middle class is harder to envision. 


None of this means the president got it wrong—far from it.  Middle Class Economics is a smart, thoughtful phrase that made for great headlines.  As we’ve said many times before, however, language matters.  Even though Main Street Economics didn’t blow Middle Class Economics out of the water, it gained greater agreement—especially among women—and it wouldn’t have cost the president a thing to say instead.


So the next time you hear the White House talk about Middle Class Economics, you’ll know their clever turn of phrase isn’t everything it could’ve been. 


Survey Method

Results for this poll are based on online interviews conducted Jan. 22-24, 2015 using Google Consumer Surveys.  The sample includes 250 adults per question, aged 18 and older, and living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.  For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of error is ±6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

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