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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

Geoffrey Skelley shares the findings of a new Morning Consult poll, at FiveThirtyeight: “When given three interpretations of the word “bipartisan,” only 10 percent of voters said it involved getting broad support from voters across the political spectrum; 32 percent said it had to involve wide support among lawmakers from both parties, while 43 percent said it was best defined as including support from both lawmakers and voters across partisan divides (14 percent didn’t know or had no opinion). The poll didn’t ask voters their views on each of the three definitions separately, so we don’t know whether they would find all of them at least somewhat credible; nevertheless, they were least likely to back the White House’s characterization of bipartisanship….Yet despite not agreeing with the Biden administration’s definition of bipartisanship, voters in the Morning Consult survey did think that among the major figures in Washington mentioned, Biden was the most interested in achieving bipartisanship: 53 percent agreed that he cared about getting bipartisan support for major legislation while only 34 percent disagreed. Democrats overwhelmingly agreed with this view, of course, but so did about 1 in 5 Republicans. By comparison, less than 40 percent of voters said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cared about achieving bipartisanship, and less than 30 percent said the same of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.”

However, Skelley adds, “But how much does bipartisanship actually matter to voters? Americans have long said they prefer that the parties work together, and respondents in Morning Consult’s poll were no different. For instance, 85 percent of voters said it was very or somewhat important for legislation to have bipartisan support, 69 percent agreed that policies with bipartisan backing were the best policies, and 62 percent disagreed with the idea that it was a waste of time for politicians to seek bipartisan support. What’s more, there were no meaningful differences between how Democrats and Republicans answered these questions….However, polls also show that many Americans are willing to scrap bipartisanship if it means passing legislation that their party prefers. For instance, a 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center found that despite majorities of Democrats (69 percent) and Republicans (61 percent) saying it was very important that elected officials be willing to compromise, members of both parties thought it was more important for officials from the other party to compromise than it was for officials from their own party to do so. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats thought it was very important for Republican lawmakers to compromise compared with just 41 percent of Republicans. Likewise, 78 percent of Republicans thought it was very important for Democratic lawmakers to compromise compared with 48 percent of Democrats.”

Further, Skelley notes, “According to a 2014 study by political scientists Laurel Harbridge, Neil Malhotra and Brian F. Harrison, respondents preferred legislation when their party got more of what it wanted and when it dominated the coalition that passed the bill versus the outcomes that were more bipartisan-oriented. In fact, respondents sometimes viewed bipartisan tradeoffs as the equivalent of a legislative defeat for their party. Notably, the researchers found this effect even though they tested respondents’ attitudes on fairly noncontroversial policies — funding for NASA or legislation to make it easier for small businesses to obtain loans. That means it’s possible that these effects could be even more pronounced on more divisive legislation….In other words, voters like bipartisanship more in theory than in practice. But that doesn’t mean bipartisan support isn’t still important politically. Voters may prefer more partisan policy results, but their stated desire for bipartisanship means that politicians can still benefit by at least trying to work together. Notably, Morning Consult’s poll found that 75 percent of voters respected politicians more when they made efforts to get bipartisan support, with essentially no difference between how Democrats and Republicans answered.” Looking towards the midterm elections, “Making bipartisan appeals could also help politicians appear more moderate to the electorate, which in turn could make them more attractive to a broader slice of the public and boost their electoral chances. In 2020, for instance, the strongest-performing candidates in U.S. House elections tended to be more ideologically moderate.”

It’s important for Democrats to better understand public attitudes toward bipartisanship and what they believe it is. In “What Joe Manchin’s constituents think of his bipartisanship,” Dan Merica interviews politcal activists and operatives in West Virginia for CNN Politics. Merica notes, “As much as I appreciate Joe’s ideal — maybe that is where his heart is at and maybe that is because of his roots — there has to come a time when you have to realize (Republicans) are not going to sit down and hold hands and sing kumbaya,” said Donna Costello, the former mayor of Manchin’s hometown and a longtime friend of the Manchin family. “And you have to do what is in the best interest of what put you there.” Merica adds, “Manchin’s political positioning — often voting with Democrats but refusing to go along with the party on key issues — has rankled countless national Democrats, many of whom accuse the senator of standing in the way of needed legislation all to preserve his own political power. At best, in the eyes of these Democrats, Manchin is solely representing the views of his politically changing state. At worse, they believe, he is a politician bent on being the most important man in the Senate….But Manchin is as savvy a political operator as he is a political unicorn. Where the West Virginia Democrat’s one-time colleagues from states like Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota have long ago lost their seats, Manchin has held on.”

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