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How Much Do Americans Really Care About Bipartisanship?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Despite the country’s deeply polarized politics, President Biden has suggested he can get the GOP to work with him. But he and his fellow Democrats have struggled to garner Republican support in Congress on big-ticket items, even though polls have shown at least some degree of support among Republican voters for policy proposals like the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March and new spending on infrastructure

This has presented the Biden administration with a quandary: Republican voters back some of its policies, but Republican lawmakers seem unlikely to vote for them. Enter the White House’s attempts to redefine “bipartisanship” as support from Republicans in the broader public instead of those in Congress.

According to a new Morning Consult poll, though, Americans aren’t really buying it. 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.

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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.

Biden walking past a sign that says “Getting America back on track”

related: Biden’s Push For Big Government Solutions Is Popular Now — But It Could Backfire Read more. »

And wanting the other side to make more concessions is well established in the research we have on voters’ preferences for legislative outcomes. 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.

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. And Biden, of course, also ran as a moderate in the Democratic primary and went on to win the 2020 presidential contest while talking a lot about “unity” and working with Republicans. He may never have expected to actually achieve much bipartisan compromise once in office, but it’s little surprise that Biden’s not abandoning bipartisan talking points since appearing somewhat more moderate than former President Donald Trump may have been a critical factor in his victory.

Other bites

  • An April poll by Pew found that 60 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, compared with 39 percent who strongly or somewhat opposed it. Majorities did however express concerns about some aspects of the death penalty: 78 percent said there was some risk that an innocent person would be put to death, and 63 percent said the death penalty didn’t deter people from committing serious crimes.
  • Gallup’s latest polling on American attitudes toward Israel and Palestinians found some small but notable shifts compared with its past surveys. On the one hand, three-fourths of Americans expressed very or mostly favorable views toward Israel, which represented little change from previous surveys. But the share of Americans who had more sympathy for Palestinians in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict inched up to 25 percent in February, the highest total Gallup has recorded in the past 20 years. (To be clear, though, sympathy for Israelis is still much higher, as 58 percent said they sympathized more with the Israelis.) This greater sympathy for Palestinians is mostly due to Democrats having more favorable views, as support for Palestinians has grown more popular among some Democrats. Gallup found, however, that Democrats were still very split on which side they sympathized with more: 42 percent said the Israelis, and 39 percent said the Palestinians. By comparison, though, a whopping 79 percent of Republicans said they sympathized more with the Israelis.1
  • The American Jewish Committee’s new survey of attitudes among American Jews found that 70 percent approved of Biden’s job performance, while 26 percent disapproved. However, the president did get somewhat lower ratings for his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, with just 58 percent approving and 27 percent disapproving (15 percent didn’t know). When asked whether they thought peace between Israel and Palestinians was possible, 60 percent said things hadn’t changed much over the past year, while 25 percent said they were less optimistic and 14 percent said they were more optimistic. However, this poll was conducted largely before the most recent conflict in Gaza, so it’s possible that respondents’ pessimism would be higher now.
  • In the latest edition of way-too-early presidential polling, YouGov/Yahoo News tested a potential rematch between Biden and Trump and found Biden ahead 46 percent to 36 percent. In addition, 53 percent of Americans said they didn’t want Trump to run in 2024 at all, including 82 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of independents and 19 percent of Republicans. His continued hold over the GOP was clear, however, as 65 percent of Republicans said they wanted Trump to seek the presidency in the next election.
  • After being delayed by a year due to COVID-19, the Summer Olympics are coming up in July in Tokyo, and 49 percent of Americans told the Seton Hall Sports Poll they planned to watch some parts of the games, about the same as the 51 percent who said they watched in 2016. And fans may have to be OK with just streaming or watching on TV, as organizers have already said foreign fans and families of athletes won’t be able to attend because of the pandemic. In fact, at this point it’s unclear whether Japanese fans will be allowed to attend. Despite this, only 22 percent of Americans said the absence of fans would make them less likely to watch.
  • The pandemic halted many gatherings or moved them online, but Gallup found that in-person attendance at religious services has increased as the threat from COVID-19 has decreased. Conducted from early to mid-May, the poll found that 20 percent of Americans had attended an in-person service in the past week, and 10 percent said they attended one virtually. Back in May 2020, only 3 percent said they had attended an in-person service, and 28 percent said they had attended virtually.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 53.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 40.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of +12.8 percentage points). At this time last week, 54.2 percent approved and 40.4 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of +13.9 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 53.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 40.0 percent, for a net approval rating of +13.5 points.

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  1. These figures include independents who lean toward one party or the other.

  2. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.