Dems Should Pay Less Attention To Issue Polling and More Attention to What Voters Actually Say

A new story in the Wall Street Journal blows open a debate that has been keeping some Democrats grumbling behind the scenes for months: that the party spent far too much time talking about healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, and far too little on other core economic issues. As the piece explains:

Health care was the most-mentioned issue across all Democratic presidential and Senate television ads, airing nearly 1.5 million times, in the 2020 election cycle, according to data from political ad tracker Kantar/CMAG. Democrats made defending the Affordable Care Act a top issue in Supreme Court confirmation hearings weeks before the election and promised repeatedly on the campaign trail to protect the law.

Democrats took the House majority in 2018 after centering their campaigns on the Trump administration’s efforts to chip away at the health law. But after the party lost multiple House seats and underperformed in several Senate races this year, some former candidates and strategists who worked on 2020 campaigns say Democrats should have focused more on people who were losing their jobs and struggling to pay rent during the pandemic.

“I think that the message needs to shift more towards the economy,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who lost her race in November in a Miami-Dade County district that swung toward President Trump after voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Concomitantly, for all the long and loud arguments between left and center-left over Medicare for All versus a public option addition to Obamacare, it turns out that voters didn’t see much difference between different kinds of Democrats on the issue:

Health care was the top issue mentioned in Republican ads as well, as they criticized Democratic candidates for a push in the progressive wing of the party to end private insurance and extend Medicare to all Americans. Mr. Biden and many other Democrats didn’t support that, instead backing an expansion of Obamacare by adding a public-insurance option.

Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former anesthesiologist who lost her race for the U.S. Senate, said it didn’t matter that she opposes Medicare for All—people said she supported it anyway.

Briefly, there are two important lessons here:

First, if Republicans are going to attack you for supporting socialist healthcare for all regardless, you might as well own it and tell people they deserve to have the same free-at-point-of-service healthcare most everyone else in the developed world gets. You might as well lead with your values, instead of hedging your bets in the hope that a moderate conservative will take a close reading of your policy platform and decide you’re just reasonable to maybe vote for. It doesn’t work. Medicare for All doesn’t seem to have been a key determinant in victory or defeat either way, so why not push for the right and real thing?

But second and more crucially, Democrats need to stop over-relying on quantitative polling. On this particular topic a few things must be said:

First, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said, the job of a politician is to lead the polls, not to follow them. Voters may not always agree, but they will often reward moral clarity.

Second, Republicans prove that they can win elections despite having the unpopular position on nearly every issue polled, so being on the “right” side of polling is no guarantee of electoral success. Something else is going on.

But third and most important, quantitative polling on issue batteries is just deeply unreliable in general as a predictor of voter opinion and behavior.

On healthcare, It is almost certainly true that in any quantitatively polled issue battery, “healthcare costs” will be near the top of the list, and “protecting Obamacare” will be near the top of a base Democratic voter’s issue pool. And it stands to reason: if you list eight issues and include healthcare costs as one of them, most people will say “oh yeah, my health insurance bill sucks” or “my medication is too expensive” and put that issue as a top priority.

But that doesn’t tell you two key things: first, it doesn’t tell what actually motivates people to vote or to select candidates when they do vote; second, it doesn’t necessarily tell what a voter would want to do about the issues that do motivate them. And even if you do include a range of options for solving their top problems, the voter’s actual nuances of motivation will almost never be reflected in the few blunt multiple choices offered in the polling.

As a qualitative research professional in my day job, I do have a bias here. But what focus groups and interviews can tell you that quantitative surveys cannot is both why people think what they do, and (if conducted properly) the intensity and passion of that feeling. If you ask voters directly without constraining their answers or giving them a multiple choice format, you can get a much better understanding of what is burning in their hearts.

There is virtually no chance at all–no matter what the polling said–that in a year marked by a once-in-a-century pandemic, unprecedented anti-police-violence protests and riots, and the outsized transgressions of President Donald Trump, more than a handful of voters were deciding on politicians based on their PPO plans.

If the quant data was telling politicians that, the quant data was wrong. If the consultants were basing advertising decisions on that–and they certainly were–then those consultants are bad at their jobs. Which in turn might explain some of the downballot election results.

Republican focus group guru Frank Luntz described his methods in his book Words That Work.  Among his core lessons is that he would never recommend to his (mostly conservative) clients the approaches that respondents liked best. He always recommended the ones that generated the most passion and enthusiasm. That’s because passion was the best predictor of actual voter behavior and willingness to attempt to persuade others, either through activism or social media or just around the water cooler.

Democrats have never seemed to heed that lesson. Every mainstream Democratic campaign seems tailored toward the most broadly likable messages designed to offend the fewest people. Many might believe that’s just good politics. But what it does in practice is motivate almost no one who wasn’t already driven by negative partisanship (Democratic voters were voting far more against Trump than they were for Biden). Worse, people tend to see through it: they know when politicians are speaking in talking points rather than from the heart. The result is that Republicans manage to tell lies far more convincingly than most Democrats can tell the truth. Everything Donald Trump says is a lie, but he tells those lies with a heartfelt conviction a moderate Democrat will never match.

Stephen Colbert in his Colbert Report character mocked this phenomenon as “truthiness,” but the mockery is misplaced. Passionate conviction is a good thing in politics. It’s less important for a voter to understand or even believe everything you say, but it is important for the voter to believe that you believe it, and that your values align with theirs. When conservatives listen to Trump, it’s not so much that they find his every word credible than that they know that he’s coming from the same emotional place they are. Liberals and independents are not immune from this psychology, either. The same goes for young leftists: they need to know that a politician understands the reality of boomer privilege, and gets at a gut level the vast gulf between their experience of housing, education and employment, and that of preceding generations. It’s less important to call oneself a socialist (admittedly an electoral problem in many states and districts) than to communicate the same anger they feel at the way the capitalist system is broken for them.

In short, Democrats need to spend a lot less time reading the polls, and spend a lot more time speaking to voters directly about the things they are most passionate and angry about. They might just find their authentic voices in the effort.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.