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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Some Public Opinion Trends Behind the ‘Democracy Is On the Ballot’ Strategy

At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Kyle Kondik and Carah One Whaley probe public opinion trend concerning “what the public thinks about democracy,” and write:

For over a decade now, scholars have been warning about democratic backsliding, and a review of high-quality surveys from 2023 finds that concern about the state of democracy is now top of mind for most Americans across the political spectrum. There’s also a little silver in that grey lining—while still troubling, only a minority (1 in 5 across multiple surveys) favors some alternative form of government and support for democracy is higher now than it was a few years ago.

Kondik and Whaley note further, “Since 2010, state legislatures have passed laws making it harder to vote, with access to the ballot increasingly dependent on the partisanship of the state legislature. There’s also been a rise in the politicization of election administration and extreme partisan and racial gerrymandering. Meanwhile, substantial dysfunction and hyperpartisanship in Congress, concerns over the impartiality of the judiciary, and little accountability and oversight of the executive branch have contributed to the loss of institutional capacity to address pressing public problems and declining public confidence in political institutions.”

In addition, say the authors, “Examining American National Election Studies data since 2004, there is a notable shift towards greater dissatisfaction with how democracy is working from 2012 onwards, and 2020 stands out with heightened levels of both “Very Satisfied” and “Not at All Satisfied” across demographic subgroups by party identification, indicating an increasing polarization in responses. That year, 2020, stands out as the peak of “Not at All Satisfied” and “Not Very Satisfied” (2020 is also the most recent available ANES data on these questions). When we analyze responses by partisanship and age, partisanship and race, and partisanship and gender, partisanship and race play the most significant role in variation among responses. Perhaps not surprisingly, the trends for Black and Hispanic subgroups responding to whether democracy is working often differ from those of white subgroups within the same political affiliation, perhaps indicating their different lived experiences and differing levels of political inclusion (see Figure 1). Young people also have heightened levels of dissatisfaction, with nearly half of 18-29 year olds reporting they are “Not Very Satisfied” and “Not at All Satisfied” in 2020 compared to one-third of those 60 and older. Just 12 years earlier, only 22% of the youngest age group reported being “Not Very Satisfied” and “Not at All Satisfied.”

Further, “The survey sources on views about democracy were Pew Research Center, Gallup, PRRI, Democracy Perception Index, the Open Society Barometer, AP/NORC, and Economist/YouGov. Across all of the surveys, partisan identification impacts respondents’ views on the legitimacy and fairness of the electoral process, including perceptions of voter fraud and the effectiveness of the Electoral College. And, according to the Economist/YouGov findings, people are far more likely to trust their friends and family about election information than any other source of information, including journalists, social media, and public opinion surveys.” Also,

According to an AP/NORC survey, 51% say democracy is working “not too well” or “not well at all” and it’s related to how they view issues ranging from immigration to the economy to climate change to abortion. The 2023 PRRI American Values Survey finds that an overwhelming majority of respondents (84% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans, and 73% of independents) believe American democracy is at risk. Pew finds that a significant majority (63%) express little to no confidence in the future of the U.S. political system​​, with 81% of Republicans saying the system is working not too or not at all well, compared to 64% of Democrats. Older Republicans, in particular, are more likely to say the system is not working. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to be concerned that a person’s rights and protections might vary depending on which state they are in. Conversely, a much larger share of Republicans than Democrats express concern that the federal government is doing too much on issues better left to state governments​​. One can see how key issues and positions from both parties can be impacting these polls: State-level protections are likely front of mind for Democrats in the wake of the Dobbs decision, which gave states much greater leeway in restricting reproductive rights, while concerns about the federal government becoming more powerful at the expense of the states is a frequent complaint from Republicans. Majorities in both parties think there is too much partisan fighting, campaigns cost too much, and lobbyists and special interests have too much say in politics. A December 2023 Economist/YouGov poll stands out for age having a greater association with views on democracy than political identity, which should set off warning bells for educators: 18-29 year olds are more closely split than older cohorts on whether democracy is no longer a viable system—31% agree and 41% disagree.

Kondik and Whaley add, “In the Open Society Barometer survey of over 30,000 respondents across 30 countries, 86% want to live in a democracy and 62% report that it is preferable to any other form of government. A little more than half (54%) of American respondents to the “Democracy Perception Index” 2023 global survey gave the U.S. a rating of 7 or higher—the study’s threshold for the belief a country was democratic. American respondents listed inequality, corruption, and fear of unfair elections as principal threats to democracy, and expressed concern about disinformation and social media.” Further,

This year’s election will be another test of the limits of democracy. The AP/NORC survey highlights that the outcome of the 2024 elections influences how people feel about democracy, with significantly polarized responses: 72% of Democrats, 42% of independents, and 22% of Republicans feel democracy is broken if Donald Trump wins, compared to 64% of Republicans, 37% of independents, and 18% of Democrats if Joe Biden wins​​. Furthermore, 65% of respondents tell Pew that they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics and 55% say they are angry. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Gallup respondents currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” of representing the American people that “a third major party is needed.” These attitudes, combined with expressed concern over the fairness of elections, could lead to people tuning out of the 2024 elections, voting in greater numbers for third party candidates, and/or skipping voting altogether.

But there are some hopeful signs for bipartisan reforms to strengthen democracy, as Kondik and Whaley note: “There is some encouraging agreement on support for some political reforms. Pew finds some consensus on replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote, and majority support for term limits and age limits. Ranked-choice voting, which currently reaches 13 million voters in 51 cities, counties, and states in the U.S., is another promising reform with bipartisan support.”

But everything depends on the outcome of this year’s presidential, congressional, state and local elections. Certainly, prospects for direct popular election of the president will require a working Democratic majority.

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