Democrats need to target 'local and less glamorous' races in 'strategic places' to stop GOP destruction

If you’ve consumed any news media lately, you’re probably worried democracy is getting strangled by Trumpist-Republican sectarians.

You’re right.

Sober analyses in news outlets like NPR, Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek and many others are downright frightening.

But the bad news doesn’t end there.

Ron Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic last year that “though [the] proliferation of bills restricting ballot access in red states has commanded national attention, it represents just one stream in a torrent of conservative legislation poised to remake the country.”

Alarmed Democrats have been responding the ways we usually expect: by giving money and in record amounts. In 2020, with a $1.5 billion barrage of digital pleas, Democrats poured heretofore-unseen sums into federal races and outspent Republicans across the board.

The problem is our aim.

As former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper vividly describes in his book Laboratories of Autocracy, state legislatures shape all the other levers of power in our country – how we vote, who gets to vote, what the districts are and whether our votes count.

State legislatures also have a bigger role than the federal government on many of the issues that affect our day-to-day lives.

That’s to say nothing of local offices.

As Run for Something’s Amanda Litman says, they “affect people's lives on everything from schools to business licenses to climate change.”

Yet 70 percent of local races go uncontested.

In the 2020 election, the Democratic Party spent a scant $50 million on all state legislative races across the country (local races garnered way less). They poured seven times more into winning the US House.

Heck, they wasted almost three times more on a fruitless campaign against a single Republican senator.

It’s bad enough that they obsess over federal races while underfunding state races and overlooking local offices. They also massively overfund campaigns that are unwinnable or in the bag.

AOC raised $20 million to win … by almost 50 points?

The Times’ Ezra Klein summed it up: “Democrats chase shiny objects.”

But Jason Sattler gave a more pointed example, noting that Marjorie Taylor Greene “could marry Hunter Biden, put her pronouns on her Twitter bio and give herself a real-time abortion on Tucker Carlson’s desk while wearing a rainbow-colored N95 mask – she’d still win.”

Yet Democratic donors stampeded to give an eye-popping $5 million to her longshot challenger, double what incumbent Democrats have gotten in toss-up seats, people like Angie Craig and Jared Golden, who have a real chance and must prevail if we are to hold the House.

If Democrats want to protect American democracy and advance meaningful policy that improves lives, we need to refocus.

Fortunately, these are choices each of us can make.

First, and most important, you can concentrate more of your own giving on campaigns that a) are challenging but winnable, b) affect the balance of power and c) happen in strategic places.

It’s depressingly easy to find fitting targets. Republicans hold trifectas in 23 states, including presidential swing states, like Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire. They also hold triplexes of the officials that have the most direct power over voting – governor, attorney general, and secretary of state – in 22 states, including Florida, Ohio and Texas.

Winning back a legislative chamber could slow the rightwing assault. Closely divided bodies that could flip in 2022 include Arizona (both chambers), Georgia, (both), Michigan (House) and Pennsylvania (both).

One donation option is to give to state-based committees focusing on winning key legislative races, like the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or to state Democratic parties giving an easy online option to target swing races as in Pennsylvania.

Or you could give to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) which supports key state legislative races across the country.

If you like to curate your giving, there’s a little legwork to do (especially because primaries have not happened yet). But it’s not too much. The DLCC has a handy key-races guide you can peruse.

Political analyst Matt Bennett provides a guide to key secretary of state races we need to hold (Michigan) or flip (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada). Democrats’ candidates for them are a Google away.

Or you can keep your own eye on strategic races in flippable legislatures. In Minnesota, Republican state Senator Warren Limmer (author of the 2012 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage) won in 2020 by less than a point. In New Hampshire, state Senate District 12 has flipped five times in the last six elections. Former Democratic senator Melanie Levesque is back for a rematch.

A second way to refocus your personal action is to volunteer or run for critical local jobs. ProPublica surveyed 65 key battleground counties and found that 8,500 new Republican precinct officers had responded to Steve Bannon’s call and signed up to work the polls.

You can balance out this influx by signing up to be a poll worker through the nonprofit Power the Polls and you can get information and training through the Fair Elections Center.

Or, if you are willing to take a further step, sign up to explore becoming a candidate for local office through Run for Something, which can help find offices and even help your campaign.

Third, we can adjust our personal political media diets. Social media noise and fundraising solicitations overwhelm our senses. No less an authority than former DCCC Chairman Steve Israel says we should unsubscribe from every single campaign email list.

Instead, we can tune our brains to more reasoned sources (I endorse the Editorial Board, as well as my own podcast), along with following people on social media who are cited in this article and who highlight the true threats and the strategic targets to focus on. (This article has linked to their Twitter accounts throughout. This is mine).

Everyone should spend their money and their time as they see fit.

No one is suggesting going cold turkey on federal races.

But the truth is, when we are more strategic, it works.

State and local-based approaches have led to critical victories for protecting democracy. As Ohio-based Democratic consultant Cliff Schecter put it, "We got those wins by doing what the right does all the time, focusing on where the power was. Sometimes [the job] is more local and less glamorous, but it is every bit as important."

The reality is that Biden has done a great job — but the pundits can't admit it

As President Biden marked the anniversary of his first year in office Wednesday, the reviews have come in. A raft of pundits and pollsters describe him as “limping,” “struggling” even “failing.”

Have you people lost your minds?

The answer to the question “what grade do you give Biden’s first year in office?” is “A+.” Anything else is insane.

Think back to where we were by the second half of 2020, almost four years into:

READ: A case headed to the Supreme Court puts Native tribal sovereignty on the line

Think now of the barrels of real and virtual ink spilled over imagining the Biff Tannen-esque dystopia (not a joke – Trump in power was literally the model for the worst future the screenwriters of 1989 could imagine) of what a Trump second term would be like right now.

America run by the worst of the worst sycophants and scoundrels, and the Trump family stealing and self-dealing in ever-larger amounts.

Faster global warming. Endless vendettas. Jailing dissidents. Clawing back LGBT rights. MAGA budgets and widespread hunger. Endless trade wars and rising nuclear standoffs. An impenetrable wall of judges. A chokehold on immigration. The end of democracy.

So to repeat: are people kidding with this “limping” nonsense?

READ: Cracks are emerging between Republicans as the fake 2020 electors scheme comes under more scrutiny

Do not accept the premise of the underlying question here. A year ago, we were all trapped in a flaming car that was speeding to the edge of a cliff. Joe Biden sprayed us with a fire extinguisher and slammed on the brakes.

The next question is not “but isn’t his driving a little slow today?”

The president could be doing literally nothing right now except sitting in the Oval Office and playing with his German Shepherd – and maybe occasionally nominating sane, competent, non-larcenous people to open agency posts and judgeships – and that would be outstanding.

We’re not on fire and we’re still on top of the cliff.

READ: ‘I will not stand by silently’: Sotomayor blasts her conservative colleagues in Texas abortion ban dissent

But what if, after fulsomely acknowledging that by electing Biden we have saved ourselves from going into absolute free fall (for now, though there’s always 2024), we made a serious, mature attempt to weigh Joe Biden’s performance in office? Even here, the media has been way off, and the assessment is badly distorted.

It is legitimate to acknowledge flaws. After all, haven’t there been missteps? Doesn’t America have problems? Yes, of course there were, and of course we do. Reality has a funny way of not being like a Trump fantasy realm of never-ending magic perfection.

But we can’t allow ourselves to be had by the “what about her emails” crowd.

You hear a lot of this on the economy, for example, from opportunistic right wing spin doctors: “Bu bu but inflation!” Inflation has been high and has lingered longer than expected. Voters have every right to feel anxious, upset, and irritated about it.

READ: The battle over who the 'real Americans' are is taking us to the brink

At the same time, the vast majority of economists agree that the economy is doing far better today than a year ago or than they expected. That’s why consumer confidence is high and rising.

The effects of higher prices have been largely offset for many by higher wages and much greater levels of employment, business is booming, the stock market is way up and prospects ahead are good.

Clearly, most things have gone well in the economy, and a few have gone poorly. Not exactly a “struggling” economic record, nor a sign of a wandering president; though to hear Fox News tell it, anyone who speaks these economic facts must be off their rocker because inflation!

It’s the same elsewhere.

READ: ‘Culture war’ bills from far-right Arizona Republicans are becoming increasingly ‘extreme’: report

But the Afghanistan withdrawal had deadly errors! But not enough covid tests!

Yes, the withdrawal from Afghanistan had many mistakes and tragically, horribly, 13 Americans and many Afghans were killed. When have we ever gotten out of a war easily, or without tragic loss?

Yes, we should have stockpiled covid tests and masks earlier this year. We have also achieved the fastest and biggest vaccination program in history.

We even see some of the same dynamic on the left, reflected in voters who tell pollsters that they are “disappointed” in the president.

But BBB got stymied! But we didn’t pass election protection! But we need more on climate!

Yes, administration officials, including the president, have occasionally given confusing or awkward messages or raised expectations too high. This president has also been more successful in passing meaningful legislation in his first year than any in living memory, leading to truly historic economic gains, lifting 3 million children out of poverty, finally investing in desperately-needed infrastructure, including major climate progress and environmental justice, and saving millions from eviction.

Along the way, outside of Congress, he reversed the Trump administration’s assault on the environment, gotten more judges confirmed in his first year than any president in 40 years, ended the European trade war and stopped the panic of global allies.

Neither should we be hornswoggled by the fallacy that failing grades are coming from voters. Any pollster worth their salt will tell you low approval ratings are not a serious assessment of performance. They are a mirror of voter’s feelings about their situation.

Amid higher prices and the omicron wave, voters are understandably very unhappy. They voice low approval ratings and grades to pollsters, which is the major avenue they have for signaling that unhappiness, especially the Republicans whose responses account for the bulk of negative Biden ratings.

Again, are voters unhappy about how the world is right now? Clearly. Does this really reflect Biden’s performance? Nope.

Joe Biden’s job performance in his first year is mostly praiseworthy. But that is beside the point.

One of Biden’s favorite lines is “don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” He has done what we, the voters, asked him to do.

He saved us from disaster. That deserves the highest marks.

Biden is under fire from a familiar GOP tactic — here's what Democrats need to do to fight back

It started just over two weeks ago with a Wall Street Journal opinion headline: “Biden’s covid Death Milestone: More Americans have died of the virus in 2021 than in all of 2020.” That unleashed the pig pile.

Republican politicians and their right-wing media sock puppets fell over themselves claiming Biden and Trump were somehow the same on covid. Or perhaps – gasp – Trump was better. It’s hogwash.

But it isn’t exactly crazy. This maneuver is actually an intentional, subversive attack on our brains, a gateway drug for an even more devastating reframing of how we think about the pandemic.

A lot is riding on whether Republicans can pull this off.

READ: Devastating supercut video contradicts Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that she isn’t anti-Islam

The pandemic is the fulcrum of our politics, the most important dynamic in all of our lives, the key to most Americans’ economic experience, and the likely reason we aren’t living through a second Trump term. With the omicron wave probably around the corner, Americans are about to rethink our internal narrative on what has happened to us, why and who is responsible. And as our recall of 2020 grows fuzzier – with Donald Trump readying for a comeback and voters souring around perceptions of continued instability under President Biden – the timing is right for Republicans to try to invert voters’ sense of reality and pave the way for a Trump resurgence.

First, let’s dispose of this wrong argument. Then, let’s talk about why Republicans make it so cynically and what Democrats can do about it.

The GOP’s bad faith
A comparison of covid deaths between 2020 and 2021 is asinine. In 2020, we started from a base of zero cases and did not record a death until the last day of February. In 2021, we started with a base of millions of cases, President Biden was inaugurated into a full-blown pandemic, and he came into office literally in the week where we saw the peak for deaths in the US. On top of that, Biden dealt with a summertime delta wave, which was like hitting the reset button back to May, 2020, on covid. When we look at much more sensible comparisons on equal time scales or against other countries, they show that Biden has done far better than Trump.

But as stupid as the math is, the underlying logic of the Trump-Biden equivalency is even worse. Through terrible planning, denial, deception, distraction, magical thinking and incompetence, Donald Trump was directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths when he was president. That’s according to nonpartisan scientists and his own covid leadership team. Even more insidious, he fueled the political movement against covid vaccination that’s causing most of the deaths under Biden's watch. Even out of office, Trump is tilting the covid scales toward death.

READ: ‘Those are your friends’: Rep. Raskin shoots down Rep. Greene after she calls Democrats ‘communists’

By contrast, President Biden is doing everything he can – mandating vaccinations, pushing boosters and paying for outreach and testing – with Trump Republicans fighting him every step of the way, even giving people financial incentives to remain unvaccinated. (Trump did get one thing right. Operation Warp speed made a real contribution – a small one – to the development of our current crop of highly effective vaccines. But further note that President Biden is the one who led the fastest vaccination effort in American history.)

The facts are clear. Trump made the pandemic much worse, and Trump forces continue making it worse. Biden is making things better, despite bitter opposition. So those same people trying to gaslight us about Biden’s record are a case of the arsonist blaming the fire brigade.

Bad faith works for the GOP
Republicans know that. So why aren’t they afraid to make an argument so obviously vaporous? The reason is most of the time, in this political and media environment, it works. There are three reasons why.

The first is Brandolini’s Law, which states that, “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” By throwing out even patently cockamamie ideas, Republicans tie Democrats in knots. The more they flood the zone with bullshit, the harder it is for Democrats to marshal the focus and attention needed to debunk it all. Not to mention that merely engaging in the argument lends credibility to the BS side and drains credibility from the fact side. Hence, the old adage: never get into an argument with an idiot, because onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

READ: Liz Cheney hints at criminal charges for Trump in panel vote to hold Mark Meadows in contempt

Second, expending all that effort to win the case with facts may be to no avail. Fact-checking doesn’t make people abandon political fantasy. With right-wing media dominating mainstream media, a giant chunk of our country is only one click away from yet another helping of sugary propaganda to wash away that side salad of facts.

Third, Swiftboating is effective precisely because it goes at your opponent’s strong point. Military historian John Keegan traces this strategy back to Alexander the Great, but look no further than the namesake 2004 attack on John Kerry’s military service. Kerry made his war record his candidacy’s foundation (he opened his convention speech with a salute) when the Iraq War was the biggest issue in the election. But rather than building on that strong base, he ended up having to litigate it. The attack didn’t have to succeed definitively. It merely had to degrade Kerry’s biggest advantage. And it did.

How Democrats can still win
Now President Biden finds himself subject to the same kind of assault, on a topic at the forefront of voters’ minds, and on an issue that should be his biggest strength. What can Democrats do about it? When the other side is flooding the zone, you have to strategically pick your battles, and then you have to go all-out on the ones you do pick.

So congressional Democrats must not shrug this off. They must make this one of the few battles they wage. They must go all-out to win it, not just with facts, but by consistently, concisely reminding Americans of all that Trump has taken away from them. Remember: it may seem easier to win an argument against total bullshit. But it is not.

READ: 'This is called a coup': Legal experts weigh in on bombshell Mark Meadows news

And Democrats ignore this lesson at their peril.


There's a reason we never talk about the government's massive bias

There's a deeper battle happening in Washington than the ones we usually hear about. It's lurking right under the surface of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill. It's woven into the established order in this country. It's something we're afraid to say out loud.

America has become a gerontocracy.

It's time to overthrow it.

This isn't about our country's leaders being in their 70s and 80s, though that matters. This is about how we lavish so much of our limited resources on our elders at the expense of younger generations.

Americans over age 65 make up only 17 percent of the population. Yet we spend about 40 percent of our entire federal budget on them. This is an outgrowth of a long-ago senior poverty crisis in America.

That's why we created Social Security and Medicare, and they worked like gangbusters: over the last five decades, the poverty rate among seniors has dropped by two-thirds. Today, seniors have the lowest poverty of any age group in America, the greatest wealth and the most home equity and home ownership, the least debt, and their overall household income has risen at double the rate of everyone else's.

Meanwhile, children under age 18 are the poorest age group in America. One in six children of this country lives in debilitating poverty. In fact, Americans under age 35 have twice the poverty rate of Americans over age 65, and the gap is steadily widening.

This is insane.

If we accomplish nothing else through the Biden agenda, it will be to start dragging our society's investment levels across the generations back to some kind of coherence (the American Rescue Plan lifting 5 million kids out of poverty is a good start). But eventually we have to go much further. There are three big reasons why.

First, things are about to get a whole lot worse. The amount we spend on seniors is set to explode, dwarfing every other item in the federal budget and everything we do as a society. In 10 years, 50 percent of our federal budget will go to people over age 65. Far worse, over the next 30 years, Medicare faces a $71 trillion shortfall and Social Security faces a $31 trillion shortfall (the rest of the budget faces only a $3 trillion shortfall — so 98 percent of our debt comes from two giant programs mostly for seniors).

And because we pay interest on all that debt, by 2050 half of all tax dollars will go to paying interest. Forget investments in health, education, housing, infrastructure, the economy or even defense. Everything will get crowded out by our addiction to senior subsidies.

Second, spending on seniors manages to be contrary to both progressive and conservative values (a mind-bending feat in today's politics). Senior subsidies are profoundly regressive. As noted above, older Americans are the most well-off age group in our society. In fact, there are currently 4 million retiree households that hold more than a million dollars in investable assets, 2 million who are earning over $200,000 a year after retirement.

Yet many of these wealthier seniors get an opening annual Social Security benefit as high as $50,000 per person, which they clearly don't need, and is higher than what the average retiree gets. Overall, this well-off group will receive $1.6 trillion in Social Security benefits over the next decade alone. And by the way, for anyone who cares about racial justice, seniors are much, much whiter than younger Americans.

Amazingly, this setup is also at odds with conservative values. Conservatives are of course not exactly fans of an expansive social safety net to begin with. But if we are going to have social programs, it would be far more conservative to spend society's resources on giving young people health, education and training so they have an equal opportunity to be successful in life and develop their own resources than to have the government step in after someone has worked throughout their life and throw in a bonus regardless of need.

Third, spending on younger people is simply a much better investment in our economy, society and federal budget. The economic return of providing pre-k to 4 year-olds is $83 billion for each cohort of kids. We could be stacking that up year after year. Even getting kids the basics like more food and health coverage through food stamps and Medicaid creates better health and lower health costs in adulthood. Not to mention that expanding child care and parental leave increases women's labor force participation, income, and tax revenue.

All told, this isn't exactly rocket science: investments in younger generations mean more people living healthier lives, costing the government less, paying more taxes and having more of their own resources later in life.

Of course, there's a reason we never talk about these things out loud (certainly politicians are afraid to): the counterattacks and accusations seem devastating. But looking closer, they are pretty thin gruel.

The primary charge is that any reduction in benefits for seniors amounts to elder cruelty. It is nothing of the sort. Social Security and Medicare are two of the great achievements of our society. Removing fear and misery from old age is something to celebrate and defend, and no one is arguing for a return to senior penury.

Rather, this is about dialing back the spending spree on the people who don't need it to help the people who do. It's the same argument against the Trump tax cuts, the same argument for the Biden BBB … shoot, it's the same basic argument from the story of Robin Hood.

Another attack: you want to take away people's money. After all, these are contributions that seniors have made to Social Security and deserve to get back. But this represents a fundamental, often willful misunderstanding of Social Security, and was the exact same mistake that George W. Bush made when he argued to privatize it.

Social Security is an insurance program, not a savings program. You don't put money in some giant Social Security bank and withdraw it later with interest (that was actually the Bush plan). You pay premiums in what is an insurance plan against poverty in old age. And after all, if you pay homeowners insurance, you collect if, and only if, you have a fire. But it's better if you never have to.

A final criticism — this is just an argument to oppose the Sanders plan to give vision, hearing and dental coverage to seniors, or even the broader push to provide "Medicare for All." Not really.

There is actually an excellent case to cover those three critical aspects of health. But if we want to provide those things, we must show how we are going to do it within the context of refocusing our society's support toward younger Americans.

Ultimately, we have to make choices, not pretend that math is simply a Fox News conspiracy. As for Medicare for All, that is a non sequitur. If we want to have a robust debate about a single-payer system and how it would benefit younger folks, that's great. Helping younger folks is the name of the game. But let's not sneak in single payer through the back door by expanding Medicare now and then giving it to more people … maybe … later.

None of this is intended to blame seniors for where we have landed. This wasn't necessarily intentional. Seniors vote, young people barely do, and our kids can't … so it's not surprising that voters voted for their interests. But we can't continue to let things slide any further. It's time to look at reality. It's time to end the gerontocracy.

There's a big problem in opinion polling that mainstream media is missing

Lee Drutman — a scholar in worthy pursuit of a means of fixing America's vicious polarization — recently offered an analysis in the Times that demonstrated an aspect of American politics that's at least skewed, at most broken.

The core of his article is a sensible argument that America needs a more balanced, flexible party system. To help us understand, he offers a 20-question survey of major policy issues (Question 1: "Marijuana should be legal," offering five response options ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree"). The aim is sorting readers into different political home bases. Drutman contends that these political home bases should be the foundation of a future six-party system.

Drutman's vision sounds better than our current neck-on-throat two-party standoff. (He literally wrote the book on it.) The problem is the survey itself. Can it really support the weight placed on it?

Consider that first question on marijuana. I chose "somewhat agree." I think we shouldn't send people to overcrowded prisons and ruin their lives for possessing marijuana, especially given the stark racial disparities in arrests. But I don't think marijuana should be exactly "legal" either, given our limited understanding of the drug.

But what conclusion can be drawn from my "somewhat agree"? Especially when it comes to the article's project of placing me into a political home base with like-minded people? Is this an issue I've thought a great deal about, or a spur-of-the-moment reaction? Is this an issue that will affect my vote? Do I not care much about this particular question, but still use a candidate's views on marijuana as a signifier of their ideology, which is something that I do care about?

These kinds of issues haunt survey research, as well as the broader enterprise of understanding and measuring how Americans form and act on political opinions. A 2017 meta-analysis of public opinion research concluded that "there is no agreement among political scientists on how to best measure public opinion through polls," and quoted a famous observation that "to speak with precision of public opinion is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost."

Most people have heard of the high-profile polling mishaps of recent years. But the less prominent, and likely more insidious, problem is that we're not measuring what Americans actually think or how they will act politically with anything near the accuracy that we believe we are. What we end up with is a murky lens through which to view our voters, our politics and our governance. Cloudy viewing leads to cloudy thinking: tautological, motivated reasoning about what people want, how we should be campaigning and what our leaders should do.

In the last 40 years, we have undergone a revolution in understanding how people make judgements we think we are testing in surveys. Much in the way that physicists for hundreds of years based their thinking on Newton's laws of motion, political scientists long-built theories of political behavior on the idea that people thought about public policy issues and made rational voting decisions based on their preferences.

But in founding the field of behavioral economics more than 40 years ago, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky proved that that's not really true. People make decisions via a whole bag of mental tricks — shortcuts and biases and heuristics that help them turn the complex into the familiar.

In polling, though, we still work in a pretty Newtonian world. If someone is asked for her opinion on issue X, we presume she will answer in a way that more-or-less accurately reflects her opinion. And if she is given the opportunity to vote in a democratic election, we likewise assume that she will rationally vote in a way that lines up.

But we really don't know the degree to which that is consistently the case. There's good reason to think that often it's not. The reality of our minds is much more complicated, and the way we react to questions and the link to our subsequent behavior is a lot more convoluted.

To continue the physics analogy, it is probably closer to quantum: in the same way that physicists believe that particles don't really have a definite position until someone directly observes them, many voters don't have a definite position on many issues until forced by some outside influence (i.e., being asked in a poll or being confronted with a voting decision) to express it.

After all, do most people outside elite political circles really spend their time thinking about health policy, let alone sub-issues like universal coverage, choice of doctors, or prescription drug price negotiations? No (one-third of Americans don't know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing). And at the point that these issues are presented, the circumstances surrounding the question will go a long way to determining the answer they give.

There's no simple reality
This is why it can make such a huge difference in polling to make minor changes in how questions are worded or the order in which they are asked. One example: Pew found a seemingly straightforward question on whether "jobs are easy to find" in someone's area yielded a roughly even split in "yes" and "no" responses. But that turned into a yawning 27-point gap in favor of "no" when a single word ("good" jobs instead of just "jobs") was added. One version says the public is divided almost in half. The other describes a 60-33 landslide. How does one draw reliable policy or political environment conclusions from that?

One can see this complication in Drutman's and many other surveys. Question 16: "Should the government raise taxes on incomes above $200,000." What can one confidently conclude from a "yes" or a "no" answer about the respondent's views and ideology? Support for increasing the gas tax in surveys can run anywhere from a paltry 20 percent to a thumping 70 percent depending on whether the question explains how revenue will be used and percentage increases involved.

Ditto for questions like, "Do you favor or oppose providing a way for undocumented immigrants already in the United States to become citizens?" It depends on which immigrants the respondent has in mind. Other polls find support at 71 percent for farmworkers, but only 44 percent for all undocumented immigrants. And even those numbers reflect embedded complexity, since they are a mix of "strongly support" and "somewhat support," which, as my marijuana answer shows, could be expressing very different underlying thinking.

When surveys can plausibly be used to support different takes on what people think, they tend to become fodder for advocates. Two years ago, progressives cited support for the Green New Deal at 80 percent, Medicare for All at 70 percent (including 52 percent of Republicans), and Free College for All at 60 percent. Moderate Democrats responded that support for Medicare for All dropped to 48 percent when voters were informed that it is the same as single-payer coverage, and 34 percent when told that it might raise taxes. Support for the Green New Deal similarly wobbled if brushed with a light feather of context.

The reality of what Americans truly thought on all of those questions? There's no simple reality. Each result was conjured out of the context of the poll: who was being surveyed, under which methodological choices, with what wording and order of the question, and in what general context. When political campaigns use polling to simulate how issues like this will resonate with the voting public, they do a more sophisticated version of this exercise. But it is still a simulation rife with assumptions that may or may not play out as intended.

What are we getting?
And of course, we can't forget the elephant in the polling room — the inaccuracy of polls when it comes to the most basic of political questions: who will win an election. There have been gobs of virtual ink spilled on this topic, and it is not worth belaboring. Suffice it to say that it remains a persistent and troubling problem. When the American Association of Public Opinion Research issued a report this summer looking into why national polling on the 2020 election was the least accurate in 40 years (state surveys were the worst in the last 20), they concluded that it is "impossible" to say for sure.

But it may come as a surprise that even before the high-profile shortcomings of 2020 and 2016, campaign "horse race" polling was a lot less accurate than people realize. Over the last two decades, the average margin of error of all polls has actually been a whopping 14 points. So if you see a poll reported showing a dead heat, statistically speaking it could also be showing a total blowout. Nor are we solving our polling problems. In 12 of the last 13 elections, the "generic ballot" has consistently underestimated Republican support, a continuing issue that pollsters can't quite account for or fix.

And while opinion research experts say they believe that issue-based polling is more accurate and less prone to these kinds of baseline errors (and spectacular misses) than candidate head-to-head polling, it's really not clear. Issue-based questions do have advantages. Probing for views on health care policy or taxes may not introduce the same set of biases in respondents. On the other hand, a horse-race question is a much simpler proposition for the voter to consider.

An additional layer of complexity comes from who is conducting opinion surveys. The website Fivethirtyeight famously brought polling averages into vogue, not only because they were supposed to smooth out the known statistical variations that come with individual polls, but also because pollsters are subject to all kinds of additional biases, methodological differences (we haven't even delved into the weighting and likely voter models pollsters apply — the "secret sauce" as one pollster described it to me — that represent the survey administrator's own judgement about what a "true" representative sample should be), wording preferences and general errors. Fivethirtyeight primly euphemizes all of this under the catch-all label "house effects."

Not to mention that after polling is released, shorn of the careful context that survey experts tend to apply and characterized by journalists and political operatives with various levels of expertise and agendas, it is really hard to know what you are getting.

Be careful how you read polls
The bottom line is that neither quiz-like surveys like Drutman's, nor research probing for voter views, nor their more sophisticated cousins that political campaigns use to calibrate campaign messaging, are measuring what people actually think about a given issue.

They are measuring how people respond to deliberately formulated question wording in a very particular and artificial format (i.e., in a poll or a focus group). They are frequently not asking questions in the terms that the voter themselves would use. These are questions designed by professional opinion researchers and/or political operatives who may be, intentionally or unintentionally, introducing terms and ideas that political elites tend to use.

But it is from this miasma that our political leaders and the professional class of political operatives, journalists, commentators and policy designers draw their conclusions about what people want and what kind of politics or communications will be effective.

To illustrate how this can go awry: Drutman's survey concluded that my views fit comfortably into a new "American Labor Party." That's … wrong. The survey clustered me with people who "focus on economic populism, with an appeal to working-class Democrats who don't have college degrees and don't follow politics closely." I'm an economically moderate former political operative with a Masters' degree who writes about politics. But funny examples aside (and I don't mean to pick on Drutman's survey, which is likely intended to be more illustrative than exacting), the basic problem is pervasive.

None of this is to say that all survey research — campaign-generated or not — is bunk. Carefully done surveys can measure changes in reactions to consistently-worded questions over time, and that tells us something. For example, that Americans' trust in government to "do the right thing" has gone from 75 percent to 25 percent in the last 60 years is a fairly robust insight into our general thinking about government. One can draw reasonable inferences from that.

Where we get into trouble in our campaigns and our political discourse is when we take survey research as a literal, or an all-that-precise guide into Americans' thinking. Any survey result is worth querying. Is the finding relatively consistent over multiple surveys, done by different groups, with different wording, and on an issue that respondents clearly understand as intended? Is it being cited to advance an agenda? Is there a different way to construe it?

Our politics have become more deeply mired in polarization, anger, and misinformation. We use opinion surveys and polls as our compass. If we aren't more careful with how we read them, we may be doomed to continue wandering through this barren political wilderness.

Trump is gaming the Census -- can Dems repair the damage if they win?

The Census, as newspapers are at always at pains to remind us, is sneakily important. It helps drive how much power each political party holds in Congress for the next decade, and where trillions of dollars in government funding go. It determines where we draw congressional district lines inside our states and guides how we understand and improve the condition of our people.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump's support is collapsing — but there are 7 reasons why Dems shouldn't get too comfortable

The run of strong polls for the Biden campaign over the last week – including both national polls with eye-popping leads and swing state results with growing margins – has led to some cognitive dissonance.

Keep reading... Show less