Essential Politics: Progressives mislead themselves about popularity of their plans

President Biden, cone in hand, leaves an ice cream shop in Washington.
President Biden leaves Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Washington, D.C., after getting a waffle cone with a scoop of blackout chocolate cake ice cream during a recent visit.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

One of the enduring beliefs of progressive voters and officials is that public opinion invariably favors their side. The corollary is that if their plans fail to pass, unreasonable obstruction must be to blame.

Here, for example, is Sen. Bernie Sanders in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” talking about the Democrats’ bill to increase social spending and combat climate change, which has stalled in the Senate:

“What is in the reconciliation bill ... is enormously popular,” the Vermont independent said. “It’s what 70%, 80% of the American people ... the American people want us to take on the greed of the drug companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Ask people whether they want to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and eyeglasses. Ask people whether they want to improve home healthcare, whether we want to deal with climate change. All of those pieces of legislation are enormously popular, the bill itself in its entirety.”


It’s certainly possible to find polls that appear to back up that statement.

But such surveys don’t give a true picture of what the public wants, unfortunately for Sanders and his fellow progressives — and for President Biden, who spent much of the first year of his term pushing the spending bill to no avail.

The reasons why and the implications for progressives are worth a closer look.

Ice cream in January

Ask people if they want Congress to “take on the greed of the drug companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” as Sanders put it, and a substantial majority almost surely will say yes. People like lower costs, don’t approve of greed and aren’t terribly fond of the drug industry, so a question worded that way will reliably produce the expected result.

Advocacy groups routinely produce polls with wording only slightly less subtle than that. Often, they’re testing language for potential campaigns to see what phrases best connect with the public. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the danger comes only when people, including elected officials, come to believe their own propaganda.

The public does side with Democrats on some major issues, but not all, by any means.

A Pew Research Center survey this week, for example, found that Americans gave Democrats a big advantage over Republicans when asked which party they more often agreed with on climate change (44%-22%), healthcare (42%-26%) and COVID-19 (41%-27%), but not on economic policy, guns and immigration, on which the two were basically even. Consistently, about 30% said they agreed with neither party.

Despite a lot of Republican efforts to profit from Americans’ anxieties about schooling during the pandemic, the survey found that Democrats held a small edge over the GOP on which party they more often agreed with on education.

A survey from Fox News, whose polling unit is widely respected in both parties, asked a slightly different list of issues and pushed those who initially said they didn’t favor either party to say which side they leaned toward. That produced different numbers, but a similar lineup:


Democrats have a strong advantage, roughly 20 points, as the party likely to do a better job on climate change, racism and healthcare. They also have a smaller, but still significant, single-digit margin on the pandemic, education and bringing the country together, Fox found.

Republicans have a strong advantage on national security, the border, immigration, crime, the economy, the federal budget deficit and taxes. The two came out roughly equal on protecting American democracy — a finding sure to frustrate Democrats who see Republican eagerness to push former President Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election as a major threat.

So what does that tell us about the Democrats’ big spending plan? As Sanders would point out, the public sides with Democrats on healthcare and favors ideas such as expanding Medicare to provide hearing aids and dental coverage. That majority for Democrats melts away, however, when the question turns to taxes to pay for all that and the impact on the budget. The public gets pulled in both directions.

A second, less-obvious issue involves what political scientists call salience.

Ask people in January to name their favorite ice cream flavor, and the results will be accurate (chocolate routinely edges out vanilla in most surveys). But that doesn’t mean most Americans have a strong hankering for a cone in the midst of winter; there’s a reason ice cream production in June typically runs 70% to 80% higher than in December. (Biden’s all-season taste for ice cream marks him as an exception.)

A similar truth applies to politics: Voters might favor or oppose a policy but not consider it a top priority at the moment. Unless a survey measures both dimensions — support and salience — it’s only giving part of the picture.

On the big Build Back Better bill that Sanders touted, for example, a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday found that 61% of Americans said they supported the social spending at least somewhat — not quite the 70% to 80% that Sanders cited, but still a majority. Similarly, 56% supported spending to combat climate change.


But asked “how important it is,” those surveyed gave a very different verdict: Only 24% said passing the bill was a top priority while 37% said it was “important, but there are other more pressing matters for Congress to deal with,” and another 37% said it either wasn’t important or shouldn’t be passed.

Americans have been consistent about what they see as the top priorities right now: The economy, especially rising prices, and the continued COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of voters see the Democrats’ plans as largely unrelated to those two concerns.

Biden has pointed to economists who say his program would reduce inflation over time, but voters either haven’t absorbed that message or doubt its truth.

The same issue of salience affects other items high on the Democratic agenda. An NBC News poll this month found, for example, that while 42% of Americans cited jobs and the economy as one of the top two problems facing the country, and another 23% cited the cost of living, only 15% listed social and racial justice, 14% climate change and 12% voting rights.

That doesn’t mean Democrats should stop pursuing issues they care about: A political party can’t let polls entirely guide its direction, or it won’t end up standing for anything. And elected officials can raise the salience of an issue by focusing on it, although the power of the presidential pulpit is often overrated.

But if a party is going to try to persuade voters about its priorities, it’s important to recognize that persuasion is called for and not insist that the public already believes in the program.


Consider the voting rights bill that Democratic leaders brought to the Senate floor this month in a doomed effort to break a Republican filibuster: The Monmouth poll found that 26% of the public supported it, 24% were opposed, 19% had no opinion and 31% knew nothing about it.

Equally important: If a party is going to spend time and energy on topics that voters don’t see as job number one, then it’s crucial to ensure that voters believe job one is under control. On both those counts, Democrats this last year have conspicuously failed.

Perhaps the most frightening number for Democrats in that NBC News poll was this: Asked to characterize the year 2021, 44% called it “one of the worst years” for the U.S., and another 37% called it below average. Only 18% called the year about average or better.

When you’re the party in charge, you can expect to suffer when voters have that grim a view of current conditions. Telling yourself that despite it all, the country really agrees with your side is a form of denial that can only deepen the problem.

A redistricting update

I wrote last week about the role state courts have played in restraining Republican gerrymandering in the current redistricting cycle. On Monday, another court — this time a three-judge federal panel in Alabama — issued a ruling that could have a major impact if it survives on appeal.

The judges said that Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature had violated the Voting Rights Act by packing most of the state’s Black voters into a single congressional district and splitting other Black communities. They ordered lawmakers to draw a new map with at least two districts where the Black population would be sufficient to elect a Black representative. That likely would lead to the election of a second Democrat from Alabama.


The state’s only current Black member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, called the ruling a “monumental victory.” The case will move directly to the Supreme Court. If the justices uphold the ruling, it could serve as a precedent for similar moves in other Southern states, including South Carolina and Louisiana.

Notably, two of the three judges on the panel were Trump appointees.

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Breyer steps down

For more than a year, Democratic activists have publicly campaigned for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer to retire, fearing that the longer he stayed on the high court, the more the risk that Democrats could lose their tenuous 50-50 hold on the Senate.

Court insiders said all along that Breyer, 83, likely would retire at the end of the current term, and Thursday he did exactly that, announcing that he would leave the court when his successor is confirmed. News of his retirement leaked out on Wednesday.

As David Savage reported, Breyer’s departure won’t change the ideological makeup of the court, where conservatives have a 6-3 majority. But it will allow Biden to appoint a younger justice who might serve long enough to, eventually, be part of a liberal majority.

Biden has said he’ll appoint a Black woman to the court, and he repeated that promise on Thursday when he appeared at the White House with Breyer to formally announce the justice’s resignation. The leading candidates are federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, 45. Jackson has the advantage that she’s just recently been through a Senate confirmation — to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in June — with support of all the Democrats and three Republicans.


Another potential nominee, federal District Judge J. Michelle Childs, 55, of South Carolina, has a strong champion in Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of Biden’s leading congressional allies. Her nomination to the D.C. Circuit is pending in the Senate.

The vacancy on the court gives Biden and congressional Democrats an opportunity to move past their recent setbacks and reenergize Black and progressive voters, Eli Stokols, Jennifer Haberkorn and Melanie Mason report. That is, if all goes well.

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The latest from Washington

Supporters of the expanded Child Tax Credit continue to push Biden to fight to extend it, Stokols reported. Last week, Biden suggested he might have to drop the credit from any revamped version of his spending package. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has opposed the credit, at least in its current form.

Tensions over Ukraine continue to rise as the U.S. on Wednesday rebuffed two key demands from Russia. As Tracy Wilkinson reported, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told reporters that the U.S. was willing to discuss “reciprocal” efforts with Russia to de-escalate, but that the Biden administration had refused Russian demands for a formal pledge that NATO would never accept Ukraine as a member.

The Federal Reserve signaled readiness to raise interest rates in March and take other aggressive actions to combat high prices endangering the nation’s economic health. As Don Lee reported, Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell made clear in a news conference that the central bank had pivoted its focus from maximizing employment to its other chief goal: achieving price stability.

At least 14.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces in the current open enrollment period, Anumita Kaur reported. The record number comes after the administration took several steps to lower costs and expand access to insurance. The number could go higher since some states, including California, are still accepting new signups.

A solution to polarized politics?

As extremism in politics has increased, reformers have proposed a host of ways to tweak the electoral system with an eye toward making the process more friendly toward centrists. California’s top-two primary was one such move. New York City’s ranked-choice voting system was another.

Now, Alaska has adopted the most sweeping statewide change to date. As Mark Barabak writes, the state’s new system, which its Supreme Court recently upheld, combines a top-four runoff with ranked-choice voting. It takes effect in time for this year’s elections.

The latest from California

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she plans to seek reelection extends one of San Francisco’s longest-running, most-fevered political guessing games, Barabak wrote: Who will succeed her when she finally does step aside? Two of the most-discussed candidates are state Sen. Scott Wiener, 51, whose district covers a lot of the same ground as Pelosi’s congressional district, and the speaker’s eldest daughter, Christine Pelosi, 55, a Democratic activist.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection to a third term, just one week after a recall bid targeting him fell short of the required signatures. As Benjamin Oreskes and David Zahniser reported, the unexpected announcement upended the campaign to represent the district, which takes in much of the Westside. Bonin, one of the council’s most progressive members, said he had struggled with depression for years and decided that it was time to “focus on health and wellness.”


The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday moved to phase out oil drilling and gas extraction in the city over the next two decades, signaling the end to an industry that helped create modern Southern California, Dakota Smith reported.

The California Legislature is headed for another bruising fight over vaccine requirements, George Skelton wrote in his column. Gov. Gavin Newsom should support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schools.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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