What do voters want, and how can we know that they want it?
Two pollsters answer my questions (and your questions) about opinion polling.
For this week’s episode I talked with two pollsters who work with candidates on opposite sides of the aisle about some of their recent research. After Virginia’s elections in November, when Democrats lost the governorship and one house of the state legislature, Brian Stryker1 was hired by Third Way to conduct focus groups with Biden voters in Richmond and suburban northern Virginia who either voted for Youngkin or considered it. The result is this revealing memo. More people should read it.
Kristen Soltis Anderson2 has been leading some interesting focus groups about January 6. We talked at length about this one with Republicans: how the questions were worded, what people said, and what we should take away from it.
If you follow me on Twitter you may know I’m pretty skeptical about a lot of issue opinion research. It’s hard for voters themselves to reliably say how they think about issues they may not have thought very deeply about. And it’s a huge challenge to assess which issues are the ones that voters really care enough about to change their votes. How people answer questions about issues also depends a lot on how you ask the questions — much more so than when you just ask people how they plan to vote.
Kristen and Brian talked with me about how to design your research to best overcome these issues and get useful answers about what voters think.
One big takeaway I got from this conversation relates to what I wrote about yesterday: the steps President Biden should take on inflation, an issue where voter dissatisfaction has taken a major toll on his approval rating. Most of the drivers of inflation are outside Biden’s control, but Brian, Kristen and I talked about how small steps on an important issue can go a long way with voters, even if they only go a little way toward actually addressing the issue.
The context was the Virginia governor’s race.
Kristen talked about the success now-Governor Glenn Youngkin had in the campaign with his plan to repeal the state’s grocery tax. Democrats correctly pointed out this wouldn’t have a large effect on household finances — the tax is only 2.5%, and only applies to a fraction of a household’s budget — but voters were drawn to the Republican’s concrete plan to address, even in a small way, the rising prices they’re facing right now.
And Brian talked about the liability that school closures created for Democrats. Virginia had unusually prolonged school closures, but Brian focused on his finding that swing voters felt Democrats did not “care” about schools having been closed. Swing voters understood the necessity of school closures for some period, but they would have given Democratic politicians more benefit of the doubt if they more clearly conveyed empathy with parents. (Empathy with parents is an area where Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe made a very important gaffe.)
I see a lot of relevance here for Biden’s inflation predicament, and for the steps I urged him to take yesterday. Rescinding Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods will only go a small way toward normalizing inflation; the same is true for initiatives already undertaken by the White House, like keeping ports open more hours and fining shippers who clog ports by leaving containers there too long. But taking and promoting these steps is a way for Biden to show that he cares about inflation, that he’s on it, and that he’s doing what he can to bring prices down. It’s the sort of thing voters respond to.
I hope you enjoy the episode.
If you have questions or comments, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. Next week, I’ll be talking with Lanhee Chen, a former senior HHS official during the Bush administration and now a Republican candidate for state office in California, and Tom Nichols, contributing writer at the Atlantic, about the role of experts in our society. Well before the COVID pandemic, Tom — who is an expert on nuclear weapons — wrote the book “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” The last two years have not been a banner time for experts in several fields including public health, but they also haven't been a banner time for expertise-rejecting members of the public (and politicians) who “do their own research.”
What’s the result when expertise polarizes politically? We’ll talk about what the pandemic has taught us about how we can get people to listen to expert warnings, take appropriate precautions, and not do really stupid stuff — and how we can get experts to stay in their own lanes, be right more often, and not use their expertise as a license to impose their moral values on the public.
If you have questions you’d like me to put to Tom and Lanhee, please write me at email@example.com.
Brian Stryker is a partner with ALG Research, which helps elect Democrats. Brian manages the firm’s Chicago office and he works with candidates in the Midwest and around the country.