Joe Biden’s master plan: do popular stuff and tell people about it 📊 April 4, 2021

The Administration's apparent embrace of public opinion polling is good for democracy, and the party's midterm chances

Thanks as ever for reading my weekly data-driven newsletter on politics, polling, and democracy. I invite you to drop me a line or leave a comment below with your thoughts. Remember to click the ❤️ under the headline if you like what you’re reading. If you want more content, I send out extra subscribers-only posts twice a week. Sign up here.


A short programming note: I wrote a very long piece yesterday on the social science of voting laws, so this week’s Sunday post will be a bit lighter than usual.

I hope you all had a great week, and I’m wishing you a happy Easter if that’s something you celebrate.


Joe Biden’s master plan: do popular stuff and tell people about it

Whether and how politicians listen to the public is a big topic in political science research, posing fundamental questions about the nature of democratic representation in modern societies. Especially in large, republican countries, where each citizen cannot meaningfully participate in the decision-making process, a government that is reasonably responsive to the preferences of the electorate is a crucial requirement for satisfactory representation. Given the limited scope of election campaigns, polls on policies and issues serve an important function in increasing the probability of congruence on other policies.

Though it seems obvious to onlookers now, Joe Biden’s use of the polls to both (a) set his administration’s agenda and (b) push for that agenda is actually quite historically significant. You should watch the two clips below, one of Jen Psaki and another of Pete Buttigieg mentioning the poll on the Democrats’ proposed infrastructure bill.

Psaki and Buttigieg’s comments both cite polls as reasons why the Administration is pursuing ambitious infrastructure bills. In comparison to past administrations, the Biden White House seems particularly keen on both being responsive to the attitudes of the people, and letting the people know they’re listening.

Not all presidents worked this way. Here are a few of the examples I cover in my book.

George Bush famously hated looking like a follower of public opinion — all the while keenly listening to pollsters and advisors on what policies to emphasize or shy away from, which positions were popular, and which issue framing had more support. (This led to some pretty sharp criticisms and clever comics, such as this headline from Washington Monthly: "President Bush doesn’t believe in polling — just ask his pollsters.")

Richard Nixon, in contrast, was also a poll-itico. He was obsessed with his image, according to political scientists Larry Jacobs and Bob Shapiro, but also devoted an ambitious public relations operation to communicating to the public how popular his actions were on specific policies. He tracked support for options both before and after making decisions, raising some of the most serious questions of which way the poll-to-policy causal arrow was pointing. Nixon’s polling operation provided positive constraints on the president when people wanted him to do something — like banning cigarettes ads on TV and pulling out of Vietnam — and negative pressure when they didn’t like what he was doing — namely, Watergate.

Bill Clinton was also an eager consumer of the polls. Here is an excerpt from a Brookings article about governing in the 90s and the “Age of No Majorities:”

It is obvious that the electorate reacted negatively to the first year of the Republican Congress. Clinton regained his standing by opposing the Republicans’ 1995 budget, especially reductions in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and efforts to cut back on environmental and worker safety regulation. However negatively the voters viewed the federal government in the abstract, they welcomed a substantial role in matters they cared about, particularly education and crime prevention. And voters were clearly upset with the shutdown of the federal government in the fall of 1995, a fact House Speaker Newt Gingrich has acknowledged.

The polls, which showed him popular throughout his presidency, are also one reason why he wasn’t as worried about his messaging during his impeachment scandal and the 1998 midterms. Polls showed Republicans had overplayed their hand and didn’t like their proposals for federal programs. Clinton’s pollsters even polled the popularity of his dog, comparing attention to the story to concurrent developments in foreign policy. Again, it is hard to draw a causal arrow, but presidents generally do what they think is popular and shy away from drawing attention to things they do that aren’t — and polls are a pretty good way of sending a signal on each front.

That brings us to the present. Biden’s White House has highlighted many polls showing the popularity of the Administrations’ position on things like social spending and his response to covid-19. The White House and DNC even used my own work for The Economist, showing the historic popularity of the American Rescue Plan, in their memos to the public. Their strategy regarding Biden’s proposed infrastructure spending bill looks to be shaping up along similar lines, as evidenced by the clips of Psaki and Buttigieg above.

Polls make up a necessary part of the Administration’s approach to selling these bills to the people. Because of the 50-50 divide in the Senate, Biden has been accused of not being “bipartisan” and working instead to pass policies via reconciliation with a tie-breaker vote from his VP. Their rebuttal — strong, in my opinion — has so far been that about 70-80% of voters agree with the two big policy goals so far. Another way to read this is that the president, facing an opposition faction in Congress that represents far fewer Americans than the majority yet has an equal share in the Senate, is using polls to tilt the media narrative in his favor and put pressure on moderate Senators.

Regardless of how you feel about his policy, if you are in favor of the public getting what it wants out of government, you have a lot of things to be happy about with the current president. And if you’re a Democrat who wants your party to win the midterms in 2022, having a president that does popular things — and talks about it! — is a pretty good point in your favor. It might even be good for democracy, too.


Posts for subscribers

What I Wrote

  • Last Friday, I published this piece on the public’s aversion to talking “cancel culture,” compared to more substantive problems. It comes with a big chart, too.

What I’m Reading

  • I have no book recommendations this week. Instead of reading, I’ve been proofreading the manuscript for my own book, which I figure is about ~500 words away from being finished. I have found it very hard to nail the conclusion, but I feel close — and I’m really happy with what I’ve produced so far.

  • I thought this piece from Nieman Lab was worth sending around: “Maybe just shut up about national politics if you want to reduce polarization?”


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