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The Poll that May Explain our Insane Politics
Politics has never been more volatile and unpredictable and a recent study helps explain why
People — myself very much included — keep getting everything wrong about politics. Joe Biden was supposed to win big in 2020 — instead, the election came down to a few thousand votes in a few states. Donald Trump was supposed to be done in politics after January 6th — he now leads the GOP primary by 50 points. Democrats were supposed to get clobbered in 2022 — they expanded their narrow Senate majority. Getting indicted 91 times was supposed to irreparably damage Trump with swing voters — he is currently leading Biden in the polls by more than any time in the last five years.
The problem is bigger than bad polling. The polls were historically accurate in 2022 and nearly everyone involved still got the election wrong. Our models are off. Our frameworks are outdated. There is something wrong that most of the people working in or covering politics are missing.
This environment is more volatile and unpredictable than I have experienced in my more than two decades working in politics. It’s no surprise. The public is still processing the national trauma of the biggest pandemic in a century — which killed more than a million Americans and disrupted our lives and families. Inflation spiked for the first time in four decades; and our media ecosystem is undergoing a rapid and radical transformation. This is the “why,” but what’s the “how?”
Last month, Pew Research released a study of the state of the nation’s politics that provides the most reasonable answer I have found. The study should be required reading for everyone who cares about politics. Unlike the horserace polls hoarding the attention on Twitter, this study helps explain why Donald Trump remains a coin flip from the presidency despite 91 felony counts and leading a violent insurrection.
For most of this year, I have been banging my head against a wall, trying to gauge the forces driving our politics in unpredictable ways. This is the beginning of a process that will be a big part of Message Box for several months.
If you want to participate in and support this effort, I hope you will consider becoming a paid subscriber to Message Box.
1. People Are Very Mad at the Political System
There is a historic level of anger and distrust towards the entire political system.
65% describe themselves as “exhausted” when thinking about politics and 55% say they are “angry.” Only 4% say politics makes them feel hopeful;
4% say the political system is working extremely or very well;
28% of the public disapprove of both parties; and
16% trust the federal government always or most of the time — the lowest level in seven decades.
2. A Disconnected, Corrupt Political System
In addition to exhaustion and anger, the American people believe politicians are corrupt and driven by financial self-interest instead of the public interest. There is a pervading sense that politicians do not care about their electorate.
Pew also asked people to describe American politics in one word. The second most common was “corrupt” — behind only “divisive.”
Approximately 80% of voters believe people who donate a lot of money have too much influence on Congress. More than 70% say the same about lobbyists and major corporations.
In perhaps the most damning finding in the entire poll, 85% of the public say that “most elected officials don’t care what people like them think.”
When the researchers asked people to name the biggest problem with the political system today, the top answer — by a two-to-one margin — was “politicians.”
Despite historically high turnout in the last several elections, people are disconnected from politics, angry at politicians, and distrustful that the political process can make an iota of difference in their lives. To be fair, Americans have always had some cynicism about politics and a distrust of government dating back to dumping tea in the Boston Harbor. But the levels of discontent are unprecedented and happening across the political spectrum.
3. What It MIGHT Mean
As noted above, this is just one study of a complex political environment. To draw firm conclusions, we will need more polls, more focus groups, and more data analysis. We do not analyze the political environment to make more accurate predictions. Who cares if electoral outcomes meet our expectations? Whether Joe Biden won by the large margin the polls predicted or one single vote, he still won. We need to understand the political environment to employ more effective strategies.
But if the Pew study is accurate, it raises some big questions for Democratic strategy and messaging:
Can Democrats run on saving democracy when people are so down on our political system? The common explanation for our surprising success in 2022 is that Democrats upended expectations by centering the election on the threat Republicans posed to democracy. I think the story is more complicated, but Democrats are planning to make saving democracy a central part of the 2024 campaign. I am not arguing that this is the wrong decision. Democracy is at stake. Still, we must factor the distrust and disillusionment into our messaging — otherwise, we will become the defenders of a broken, corrupt political system.
How do we talk about Democratic accomplishments? The primary theory for President Biden’s high levels of disapproval on economic issues is that voters are largely unaware of his major accomplishments. And therefore, educating them about those accomplishments is a strategic priority. How we talk about those accomplishments must start from a place that acknowledges the high level of distrust in the federal government. Some of Biden’s biggest accomplishments have yet to go into effect. This distrust creates a hurdle for convincing people that these policies will really deliver for them.
What’s the best message against Trump? Given the close election, it’s fair to say that the Democrats’ anti-Trump message was not as effective as we thought it would be in 2020. In a moment when the public is livid at politicians, we have to be careful not to inadvertently help Trump with a message that makes him seem even more like an anti-politician.
We need more humility in our political analysis, so I don’t want to make too much of this study. One poll won’t answer all of the questions, but it’s a start.
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