The Democratic Party needs to think beyond just passing big policies if it wants to win in 2024 | #193 – April 24, 2022
Developing new strategies to link its popular public-goods programs to a broader American identity could expand its potential reach
I want to start my post this week by acknowledging all of the people who sent feedback to last week’s newsletter about the roots of the Democrats’ structural institutional disadvantage and how they might shrink it. People seemed particularly engaged with the bits on how nationalization has hurt the party’s ability to run in red areas, and why a separate third party might help. Some other notes were more constructively critical, which I’m especially grateful for. I learned a lot from them and have a second post on the topic in the works.
But for now, I want to respond to something else entirely. That something is the ongoing debate over Joe Biden's low approval ratings — and what they mean for the party’s broader grand strategy.
One side argues that Joe Biden's low ratings are a product of today's economic and political environment. According to this side of the debate, he is being dragged down by two forces. The first is polarization. As members of America's two major parties have sorted into two increasingly distinct and isolated groups, the share of the population that agrees with the president has naturally increased — as has the percentage that disagrees with him. Analysts like me like to say modern presidents have higher "floors" and lower "ceilings" to their approval ratings than presidents that were elected during less polarized times. If Biden were a president in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s, there would be more people open to approving of him when he did something good or disapproving of him when he was performing poorly.
The second force is economic growth. We could look at many measures of this but at the current moment, I'm basically just talking about inflation. It is the story most Americans have heard about thus far. And fair enough: food is getting more expensive, as are gasoline and the energy that powers Americans' homes. Since most voters are not intimately familiar with the way the president shapes the magnitude of inflation, their opinion on him is used as a heuristic to signal their overall unease with the price of... well, basically everything. Again, that's how the theory goes.
But other analysts and social scientists have different theories. Something is up with the Biden Administration, in particular, they say. He hasn't passed a lot of the policies he promised in Build Back Better or his climate agenda, for example — and even though the blame for that does not lie squarely with him, voters have blamed the president for not following through on his promises. The story is much of the same with student loan debt, which Biden said he would cancel but so far has not (he has only delayed repayment). Maybe he has even been too ambitious with what he has managed to pass, and the resulting increasing liberalism of federal government policy has upset political independents. In this view, Biden is unpopular because of his own personal and political failings, not because the deck is stacked against him.
I think The Truth TM is somewhere between these arguments. Or, rather, that elements of both are true simultaneously.
Here is what the data say. A while ago, I set up a model to predict presidential approval ratings as a function of three variables. Each was recorded on every day of every presidency since Harry Truman's first term. These variables are: (1) the length in days that a president has been in office; (2) the projected percentage of voters that cast ballots for one party in the most recent (or current) election and a different party in the one before it; and (3) an index of economic growth calculated by taking the average of annual changes in ten different indicators, such as non-farm payrolls and the consumer price index. I omitted the data from every day of Joe Biden's presidency. That way, we could train the data on the past relationships between these variables and make predictions for a non-Biden president ruling today.
We published some of these results in an article for The Economist late last year. We basically concluded that, yes, Biden's ratings are lower than expectations — even if you only control for polarization, time, and inflation — or even the much-more-negative Index of Consumer Sentiment from the University of Michigan. You can see the results here (click the thread for more):
If polarization was as low as in the mid-1900s, even with today's inflation, we'd expect Biden to be around +10 on net approval. Instead, he is somewhere between -5 and -10, depending on how you average and what pollsters you trust. We also looked at what Biden's ratings would be if inflation and polarization were low. He'd be at around +30.
I was reminded of this today when Ron Klain, Biden’s Chief of Staff, tweeted about the results of the French presidential election:
This is funny to me because a 41% approval rating is not exactly something to celebrate! But anyway, it suggests to me that the White House seems to know it is in quite a big pickle.
So, what has it done about it?
The strategy so far seems to be to pass policies that help Americans and hope they give you credit for it. That is what the Administration was hoping it would accomplish with the American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. And yet, Biden’s approval has only continued to sink.
As we have discussed, that is not entirely their fault! Or maybe even largely due to factors under their control. Remember, Biden is about 10-15 points on net approval lower than we’d expect based on the political and economic fundamentals alone. And that ain’t no +30 or +40 — marks presidents frequently hit before the modern polarized era.
Yet this is a pretty short-sighted understanding of what makes voters tick. The political science on the issue here suggests that enacting popular policies is worth only a few fractions of a percentage point on approval or vote choice. The fundamentals, especially polarization, carry much more weight in determining how favorable a political environment will be towards the incumbent party. And you’re not going to undo polarization by building bridges.
To do that, you’re going to have to do more. Elizabeth Warren wrote an article for the New York Times last week arguing that Democrats should go big, passing a lot of the party’s so-called “deliverables” and forcing their vote shares to increase as a result. But this risks prompting an ideological backlash too. Political scientists have found a relatively strong correlation between the number of ideological laws they pass and the number of House seats they lose in their first midterm. And that is not going to reverse polarization in any significant way, either.
That brings up the second option, which is to moderate. This is the preferred choice of the loudest extremely-online political pundits and commentators. We need not relitigate the popularism debates here, as the idea to chase the median voter on economic and identity issues is rather over-discussed. What’s important to note is that these pundits will also come up short, as Warren’s strategy will, by focusing mainly on satisfying policy and attitudinal preferences. At best, they will have marginal success at convincing immoderate independents and Republicans to their side. And at worse, they will isolate the left — currently the most energetic and movement-oriented members of the Democratic Party.
Most of the online discourse has pitted these two ideas for the future of the party against one another. Persuasion vs turnout; moderation vs deliverables. But there is a third way! (No, not that Third Way.) And that is for Democrats to think of their strategies as falling under one common umbrella of depolarization, particularly on racial attitudes. The things they decide to do could help them run in redder states and districts and decrease their structural disadvantage in the Senate and Electoral College, as we talked about last week. It would also be a healthy step for democracy generally. Biden won the 2020 election while talking about unity and patriotism, but it does not appear from the outside that the Biden Administration is thinking any differently about that than, say, Barack Obama’s West Wing was.
One idea here is for red-state Democrats (Joe Manchin, John Tester and Sherrod Brown) and progressive members (like Bernie Sanders and The Squad) to unite on an agenda that provides more public goods (health care, education, child care) for all Americans (conditioning on some other sacrifices for Manchinema), and then embark on a national campaign, complete with massive rallies and organizing events, where they emphasize their patriotic pro-America accomplishments — with not-zero-sum racial language. They could use findings from research into the connection between racial attitudes and public policy preferences, like the “Race-Class narrative,” to decrease aggregate racial resentment and increase the connection between liberal policy preferences and more universal identities. There are enough economic liberals or cross-pressured voters with middle-of-the-road scores on the racial resentment voters to provide good returns on this strategy.
Of course, the party will have some problems making this work. The biggest one is that they do not control political narratives in a vacuum. Right-wing media is extremely adept at keeping culture-war identity issues salient and their bases angry and engaged.
But so far, the Biden Administration’s strategy has been more of the same. The things they are doing now didn’t work in 2010 or 2014, and it is evidently not working now. All I’m saying in this letter — similar to what I was saying last week — is that it will take some creative thinking and genuine experimentation to dig themselves out of the hole they are in.
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What I’m reading
This article from Perry Bacon Jr on where Joe Biden’s political strategy has gone wrong and how we can measure the extent of Democrats’ weakness
A good piece by Sam Alder-Bell on how the labor movement made the Democratic Party strong and why the party needs to rekindle that flame
And this column from Jamelle Bouie on how anti-Trump Republicans squandered their opportunity to force their party to leave him behind.
That’s it for this week. Thanks very much for reading. If you have any feedback, you can reach me at this address (or just respond directly to this email if you’re reading in your inbox). And if you’ve read this far please consider a paid subscription to support the blog.