Are the Democrats in trouble? Gallup editor explains why the real story is that Americans hate both parties

Are the Democrats in trouble? Gallup editor explains why the real story is that Americans hate both parties
January 4, 2020 — Vice President Joe Biden holds an event with voters in the gymnasium at McKinley Elementary School in Des Moines, where he addressed a number of issues including the recent escalation with Iran. Iowa member of Congress Abby Finkenauer was also on hand to announce her endorsement of Biden. Credit: Phil Roeder // https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Joe Biden has been president for a little over a year and took office in the midst of several historic crises, including the immediate aftermath of a coup attempt by his predecessor and a pandemic that will surely kill more than a million Americans. Yet many among the pundit and political classes are already writing the Biden administration's political epitaph.

Such people have concluded that Biden's bold and transformative domestic policy agenda is a failure, and that the American people are now turning on him. Many are citing inflation as a massive political liability, in an attempt to cast Biden is a 21st-century version of Jimmy Carter afflicted with national malaise and "stagflation." What they conveniently ignore is that Biden's economic growth numbers more closely resemble the "good old days" of Ronald Reagan, circa 1984.

Biden is accused of being aloof, disengaged, overly distant, somehow boring and not compelling, and overly reluctant to be available to the news media (and by implication the American people) because he does not give daily or weekly press conferences.

Historic trends are also highlighted: It is probable that Republicans will take control of the House in this year's midterms, and perhaps the Senate as well. So Biden's failed presidency is seen as preordained. Some prediction markets now indicate that Donald Trump is likely to defeat Biden if they face one another again in 2024.

The narrative of Biden's "failed presidency" is based on public opinion polls showing that his levels of support have fallen to the level of Donald Trump's, or lower, on several occasions. This is taken as proof that the American people have turned against Biden and his policy agenda.

There is a widely-discussed new poll from the Gallup organization that shows a 14-point swing from Democrats to the Republicans, in terms of party identification since January of 2021. By that measure, Republicans enjoy a 5-point advantage over Democrats in the upcoming midterms.

Ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary, many pundits are declaring that Biden is overly "progressive" and has surrendered to "wokeness" and "political correctness." Their proposed solution, of course, is that Biden must pivot back to some imagined middle that will allow him to lure back "independent" and "suburban" voters and members of the "working class."

Reality is more complex. The mainstream media is creating and embracing the narrative of Biden's failure because it fits their predilection for horserace journalism, "both-sides-ism" and a desire for dramatic partisan conflict. Many things are impacting the public assessment of Biden's presidency: the aftermath of the Trump regime, years of mass death, economic insecurity and widespread uncertainty about the future.

Ultimately, it may not matter what the Biden administration actually does. A feeling of doom has taken hold. Hope is running out in this interregnum period. For many Americans, perception becomes reality. Biden's presidency may indeed be in trouble, but not for the reasons that America's pundits and others who police the boundaries of approved public discourse would like to acknowledge.

The real problem is that American democracy and the future of the country are in peril because of the Republican-fascist movement's escalating assaults, and the deep structural problems and other cultural problems that made such a disaster possible.

In an effort to better understand the meaning of Gallup's recent poll, I recently spoke to Gallup senior editor Jeffrey Jones, who oversees research and analyzes Gallup's U.S. polling surveys. In this conversation, Jones offered his interpretation of what these poll results actually tell us about how Americans people feel about Biden, and their relative support for Democrats or Republicans.

He also discussed what public opinion polls can and cannot tell us, and highlighted the growing power of independent voters in American politics. More than anything else, Jones stressed that negative partisanship and other forms of extreme political polarization are damaging democracy. Toward the end of this conversation, he suggested that we should read this new Gallup poll — and other public opinion polls — with an open mind, rather than to validate our preconceived conclusions.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What it is like being a professional who conducts public opinion polls in a moment of such change and crisis?

So many aspects of politics and American society are polarized. We know how Republicans and Democrats are going to rate presidents, for example. So much is dependent now on independents and which way they trend.

Respondents were less influenced by partisanship back in the late 1990s, when I began at Gallup. If the economy was good and the country was at peace, then people had no problem saying they were satisfied with how things were going in the country. Now, because of polarization, people won't really say that if the other political party is in control. They are pretty negative across issues.

Polarization works in the other direction as well, where the party of the president in office, to a large degree, determines whether everything is great or whether obvious problems in the country are minimized when evaluating national conditions.

How is partisan polarization impacting public opinion, specifically, and the country more generally?

The United States as a whole is a centrist, moderate, maybe slightly right-leaning nation. And theoretically, if you want to win elections, that's where you should govern from or appeal to in campaigns. But it seems increasingly that the people who are elected to office emerge from primaries where, to win, a candidate must appeal to the people who are less toward the middle than the country as a whole. Increasingly, it also seems as if voters choose more on candidate party affiliation rather than candidate qualifications, issue positions or experience.

As we have seen in recent congressional elections that have produced turnover in party control, many candidates are elected to national and other high-profile offices as a type of protest vote against the party in power. This is not a mandate — even though many people elected in the last few decades have governed as though they were given one. They were elected largely because people were unhappy with how the other side was governing. The other party is voted into office in response, and then they go off too far in one direction: Bill Clinton in 1994 with health care, George W. Bush with Iraq in 2006, Barack Obama in 2010 with government spending and health care, Donald Trump in 2018 with immigration and other issues and quite possibly Joe Biden in 2020 with government spending programs.

That doesn't mean voters want to go too far in the other direction once the other party gains power. Maybe just stop going too far in the direction the government was going under the old party.

What is it like doing this type of a work in a moment when the United States is experiencing a democracy crisis?

We at Gallup are committed to the independent, neutral, scientific measurement of where the public stands. It is an important input in the democratic process. Elected leaders may take it into account in deciding how to vote on issues, although maybe less so than in the past, with the party loyalty in Congress as strong as it is. Public opinion may also establish certain guardrails that politicians might take into account in determining how far they can go on certain policies, either to represent the views of their constituents, their party or the country more broadly.

How does negative partisanship impact public opinion?

It has really changed how people evaluate the president. The pattern is clear. It is getting more extreme.

We have seen increased polarization in how the public evaluates presidents. But it is not so much among people who support the president's political party — those ratings have always been very high. The change is among those people who are opposed to the president's party.

In decades past, maybe 50% of Republicans would approve of a Democratic president or vice versa. Then it went down to no higher than 30% by the Clinton administration, but now is mainly in the single digits. There is no honeymoon period at all from the opposition party, although as we have seen with Biden and other presidents, independents may give a new president a honeymoon. We are seeing single-digit levels of support for presidents on Day One of their administrations from the opposition party.

There is definitely a ceiling on presidential approval now, where there was not one in the past. That's because the other side is unwilling to approve of a president from the other party.

What can the new Gallup Poll on partisan identification tell us? And what can it not tell us?

This new poll tells us that the American people are responsive to what is going on in the country, and that influences their identification with the two major parties. They give credit and assign blame when things are going well or not going well. For example, at the start of 2021, when Trump was still in office, the COVID situation wasn't going well and Trump was disputing the outcome of the presidential election.

Jan. 6 certainly did not help his standing. Trump's approval rating dropped 12 points from the time of the election. That is the most we've ever seen a presidential approval rating decline after losing an election.

Joe Biden takes office. During the first few months COVID cases began to decline. Biden was getting credit for that, and it was shown through pretty decent approval ratings from independents. In the first quarter, Democrats had their largest advantage on party affiliation since 2012.

Biden's poll numbers started to decline in the summer, as COVID cases rose and the administration struggled to control the pandemic. Democratic affiliation started to erode a little. Then came Afghanistan and now inflation, which caused people to question the competence of Biden and the Democratic Party. The American people were responsive to those issues. Certainly in the polling we saw Biden's approval rating go down. By the fourth quarter, the Democratic advantage in party affiliation had been wiped out and the Republican Party now held a five-point advantage, its largest since 1995.

Public opinion polling cannot go too deeply into people's decision-making processes and why people believe the things they do. Often we are just measuring positive or negative attitudes. That information is still useful. The average person does not have a great deal of information about political matters, and they are not ideologically consistent in their opinions for the most part.

But even what polls reveal about basic favorable or unfavorable, positive or negative, favor or oppose on certain policies gives leaders important information. Even if the average American is not spending four hours a day reading newspapers or watching the news, they do have meaningful opinions that leaders can respond to.

How do we locate this new poll in the larger context of American politics?

One of the big conclusions of the polling results is that the fortunes of political parties — both in terms of whether people identify as supporters of a party or vote for them in elections — are tied to perceptions of how the president is doing. Partly because of party polarization and also widespread dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country, which has been consistently below 50% since 2004, it seems harder for presidents to get passing grades from the American public. A passing grade would be majority approval.

Presidents with less than majority approval see great losses for their party in Congress in midterm elections, as we have seen in 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and likely 2022. They are also vulnerable to defeat when seeking re-election, as with George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Donald Trump in 2020. George W. Bush and Barack Obama were re-elected, but in relatively close contests. Both had job approval right around 50% when re-elected.

What do we see in the polling regarding divergent perceptions about Jan. 6 and Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol?

We see a widening party gap in trust in the news media, in particular, and in other U.S. institutions generally. Republicans have very little trust in the news media, so they are unlikely to believe news reports that cast doubt on allegations of a fraudulent or stolen election. If Republicans don't trust the media in general, who do they trust? Republican elected officials, especially Donald Trump, and conservative media that in many cases disputes what the mainstream media is reporting.

People's political realities thus differ based on the type of information they get, and it is hard to forge consensus on the key issues of the day — be it the COVID threat, the health of the economy and the legitimacy of the 2020 election or how elections need to be reformed. That is very concerning for a democracy, where some consensus is important for leaders to agree on which direction to go with policy. Both parties want election reform — but their ideas of what is needed are very different.

We take the data at face value: We seemingly live in two different countries. There is a Republican country and a Democratic country. Democrats believe one thing and Republicans believe the other on many issues.

Now, is that because they have different opinions? Or is it because they do not want to agree with the other side?

Many pundits and other members of the commentariat are obsessed with "independent" voters. What do we actually know about them?

Independents are now the largest political group, whereas in the past it might have been that Democrats, Republicans and independents were roughly even at 30%. We are now at 40% independents. To me that suggests that many Americans are turned off by both parties. We know that many independents lean one way or the other, in terms of Democrat or Republican, and they probably vote that way. Their issue positions are generally consistent with partisan people who identify with the two main parties. If independents vote like partisans and have issue positions that are like partisans, the fact that they won't identify with a party tells us something about how they fell about the parties.

We know that the public's views of both parties are pretty negative. A belief that government is gridlocked is one of the things driving these numbers. We see these numbers primarily from people who are not particularly attached to either party. They are not really upset about who's in office as much as about how the government is working, or not working.

Gallup's new poll showed a 14-point swing in party identification and support from Democrats to Republicans, one of the largest such movements in American political history. What does this actually tell us about the country's political terrain?

Again, that move tells us that the American people are responsive to what is going on in the country. With independents being the largest group, public opinion is not as fixed as it once was. They're the ones who are moving the most. Hardcore Republicans and hardcore Democrats are not going to move that much. This larger group of independents can. On a good day for the Democrats, these leaners might say they're a Democrat. On a bad day, they might say they're an independent. The same is true for Republicans.

We know that the public's views of both parties are pretty negative. A belief that government is gridlocked is one of the things driving these numbers. We see these numbers primarily from people who are not particularly attached to either party. They are not really upset about who's in office as much as about how the government is working, or not working.

Gallup's new poll showed a 14-point swing in party identification and support from Democrats to Republicans, one of the largest such movements in American political history. What does this actually tell us about the country's political terrain?

Again, that move tells us that the American people are responsive to what is going on in the country. With independents being the largest group, public opinion is not as fixed as it once was. They're the ones who are moving the most. Hardcore Republicans and hardcore Democrats are not going to move that much. This larger group of independents can. On a good day for the Democrats, these leaners might say they're a Democrat. On a bad day, they might say they're an independent. The same is true for Republicans.

Much of the movement in partisanship is in and out of the independent category, as opposed to flipping from one side to the other. It is generally true that people do not flip from Republican to Democrat. But people can move in and out of the independent category to the partisan category. That is what I believe we are seeing.

So many inferences and other conclusions are being made from the new Gallup poll, many of which, to my eyes, are incorrect and the result of partisan blinders and other biases.

If people are claiming that we are a Republican country or a Democratic country, they are wrong. Why? Because only about 60%, combined, identify with either party. Independents are the largest group, over 40%, and you can't win elections without them.

Neither party can claim to have the majority of Americans behind them generally. In order to build a majority, you're going to have to appeal to independents and maybe even some from the other party to get elected and have support for your governing policies. I would agree that the United States is probably center-right on some issues. On others, however, the country might be center-left.

t can be hard to figure where the country stands, looking at all the data. When people are asked if they are conservative, moderate or liberal on social issues, they are about equally split. But on a lot of specific moral issues — same-sex marriage, having a baby out of wedlock — they are becoming increasingly liberal. On economic issues the country is more likely to identify as conservative than liberal, but they also support left-leaning specific policies.

What advice would you give about how to understand public opinion data in general, or this poll in particular?

It's to their advantage to read the analysis in an honest and fair way, and to be open to the evidence and findings that do not support their preferred narrative.

It is certainly better to look at multiple polls than a single poll. More data is better. With a single poll, a person might find a question and answer that supports their point of view. But that question may be poorly worded, or there may be other forms of bias in the results. Moreover, if you look at other questions on the topic and they come to different results, that may be where in fact the preponderance of the evidence is. Ultimately, be open to accepting that other people have opinions that might differ from yours. That is fine.

As for the current survey, it is important to remember that party preferences are not fixed for many. As conditions in the country change, things can move pretty quickly, from a large Democratic advantage early in the year to a nearly complete flip by the end of the year. I would add that our most recent polls show the parties at near-parity in terms of party identification, so things may be starting to stabilize, with the two parties about equally strong.

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