New polling from the progressive pollster Data for Progress, described in a new piece Monday at Vox, points the way forward for Democrats looking to oust President Donald Trump from the White House and enact a liberal policy agenda.
Progressives often argue that their plans are broadly popular with Americans, and that these ideas are only prevented from becoming reality because of an obstinate Republican Party weaponizing racism and misinformation, archaic political institutions that stymie significant efforts at reform, and corruption across the two parties that allows special and corporate interests to undermine the popular will. And there is a fair amount of truth in this idea — some progressive idea are remarkably popular, and there’s no good reason they haven’t been implemented yet.
But it’s not true that a progressive policy wishlist would garner majority support across the board, and anyone hoping to see real, positive change should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their preferred platform. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean politicians can’t ever run on or enact ideas that lack majority support — sometimes leaders have to do what they think is right and take the hit, and some unpopular ideas are necessary — but it just reflects the fact that any candidate with a considered electoral strategy should focus on the areas where they have the strongest popular support.
So what’s actually popular?
One strength of the Data for Progress polling is that, instead of simply asking respondents how they feel about a specific idea, the firm listed two broad-brush arguments in favor of and against each policy, framed as coming from either Democrats or Republicans. This method should offer a better sense of how voters might respond to an issue in the context of a campaign, where both defenders and critics of a policy will have the chance to speak their minds. If a policy still retains strong support from respondents even after hearing pro and con arguments, we can be more confident that running on the idea makes for good politics.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias noted, under this type of polling, Medicare-for-All is less popular than it may appear in other surveys. Under four different versions of the question, Medicare-for-All scores support around 40 percent or a bit higher, while the opposition was slightly lower. A substantial number of people were undecided.
While defenders of the idea may take the policy’s slim lead as a victory, it’s clear that there’s a lot of risk involved in an electoral strategy based on the policy. Many people are undecided, and they could be convinced to turn against it. And it’s important to remember that, because of the structure of the Senate, House of Representatives and the electoral college, a policy that has a slim popular lead in national polls maybe be a net negative in terms of how that support translates into who gets elected at the federal level.
But there is good news for Democrats on health care, which is consistently a central issue for voters. Three central policies that could be done either as a part of or separate from a broader Medicare-for-All push poll quite favorably.
“In particular, three ideas to lower prescription drug prices — revoking patent rights on the most expensive drugs, government-run manufacturing of generic drugs when there isn’t much competition in the market, and a big boost in government funding for pharmaceutical R&D — all hit the ball out of the park in terms of popularity,” wrote Yglesias.
All three policies have support above 50 percent, and less than 30 percent of the population opposes the plans. Emphasizing these ideas in an election could likely help win over voters without scaring too many people away.
Other popular ideas
Family leave: Asked if they support a policy that would “guarantee new parents and other caregivers 12 weeks of paid leave for childbirth or serious medical issues,” 60 percent favored it, while only 25 percent opposed it.
100 percent clean energy: Asked whether they favor a plan to “transition the economy to 100 percent clean energy by 2045,” 51 percent favored it while 30 percent opposed it.
Clean water: Asked whether they favor “updating and strengthening the Clean Water Act,” 61 percent offered support while only 19 percent said no. As Yglesias noted: “The Trump administration has been relentlessly hostile to clean water measures, and Democrats have scarcely pushed back. But this polling indicates that tougher clean water rules are very popular, and predictable arguments … don’t change that.”
Corruption: The poll also asked people whether they would like “to ban members of Congress and senior government officials from owning stock in companies, and require presidents to sell assets that pose a conflict of interest. Additionally, the policy would ban senior government officials from engaging in lobbying for several years after leaving office.”
This policy, which has been a centerpiece of the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), garnered 51 percent support and only 26 percent opposition.
Interest rate controls on credit cards: This policy would stop “credit card companies from charging more than 15 percent interest per year.” The poll found 61 percent favored this idea, while 21 percent opposed it.
Ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen: 46 percent of people approved of the idea, while 28 percent opposed it.
Lead paint removal: 57 percent of people supported a plan “to remove lead paint in all housing, schools and playgrounds,” while only 23 percent opposed it.
Marijuana: Respondents were asked whether they support “a policy where marijuana possession would be legal for those at least 21 years old. Additionally, the sale of marijuana would be legalized, taxed, and regulated.” 59 percent were in favor of this idea, while only 27 percent opposed it.
Decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing: This policy would involve “decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States, which means that illegal entry would be treated as a civil, rather than criminal matter and dealt with by the civil court system.”
Only 30 percent supported this idea, while 52 percent opposed it.
Cutting military spending: Asked whether they favor “cutting back on our military spending for wasteful procurement of weapons systems,” 33 percent supported it, while 47 percent opposed it.
Ending cash bail: This policy “would shift from the current money-bail-only system to one that allows judges to release most defendants until they have been convicted of a crime.” Only 35 percent of people support the idea, while 44 percent oppose it.
Reparations: Asked whether they support “cash reparations to the descendants of slaves,” only 21 percent said yes, while 58 percent said no.
Sectoral bargaining: Respondents were asked if they supported “a policy under which sections of the US economy are unionized as a whole.” Only 28 percent said yes, while 47 percent said no.
Now, to be clear, even if a policy is unpopular, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea; it certainly doesn’t mean that activists shouldn’t try to convince people to support it, or even that politicians shouldn’t ever support it or try to argue in its favor. But politics is about winning votes, and politicians won’t even be able to pass the good, popular ideas if they’re saddled down with too many unpopular positions. So they should be aware of which parts of their platforms are strengths and which are vulnerabilities — and then strategize accordingly.
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