Republicans in the U.S. House last week unanimously opposed President Biden’s economic stimulus bill, even though polls show that the legislation is popular with the public. The U.S. Senate will consider the bill soon — and it looks like the overwhelming majority of Republicans in that chamber will oppose it as well. And it’s not just the stimulus. House Republicans also last week overwhelmingly opposed a bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And the GOP seems poised to oppose upcoming Democratic bills to make it easier to vote and spend hundreds of billions to improve the nation’s infrastructure. All of those ideas are popular with the public, too.
“Duh,” you might say. Of course, the party out of power opposes the agenda of the party in power. Democrats did that during former President Donald Trump’s four years. Republicans did it during former President Barack Obama’s two terms. The parties just disagree on a lot of major issues.
You’ve seen this movie before, right?
This sequel is a little different, actually. Obama’s health care bill was only hovering around majority support as it moved through Congress. Trump’s proposals to repeal Obamacare and cut corporate taxes were downright unpopular. In contrast, Biden and the major elements of his agenda are popular. And the Republican Party isn’t, which helps explain why it was swept out of power in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
So if an unpopular party uniformly opposes popular policies in the run-up to 2022 and 2024, is it buying itself a ticket further into the political wilderness?
There are several reasons to think that opposing popular policies won’t hurt Republicans electorally, and conversely, that implementing a popular agenda won’t necessarily boost Biden that much.
The first reason that congressional Republicans can afford to oppose popular ideas is one that you have probably read a lot about over the last several years: The GOP has several big structural advantages in America’s electoral system. Because of the Electoral College, Trump would have won the presidency with around 257,000 more votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even though he lost nationally by more than 7 million votes. The Senate gives equal weight to sparsely populated states like Wyoming and huge ones like California, so the chamber’s 50 Democratic senators effectively represent about 185 million Americans, while its 50 Republican senators represent about 143 million, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser recently calculated. Gerrymandering by Republicans, as well as the weakness of Democrats in rural areas, makes it harder for Democrats to win and keep control of the House even when most voters back Democratic House candidates. That’s what happened in 2020.
Put all that together, and congressional Republicans are somewhat insulated from the public will. In turn, the advantage for Biden and congressional Democrats of being closer to the public’s opinions is blunted.
Second, electoral politics and policy are increasingly disconnected. More and more Americans vote along party lines and are unlikely to break from their side no matter what it does. Some scholars argue that voters’ attachments to the parties are not that closely linked to the parties’ policy platforms but rather more akin to loyalty to a team or brand. And partisanship and voting are increasingly linked to racial attitudes, as opposed to policy. So GOP-leaning voters may support some Democratic policies but still vote for Republican politicians who oppose those policies.
Third, the last several midterm elections have all been defined by backlashes against the incumbent president. You could argue that there’s nothing inevitable about this, and that former President George W. Bush (Social Security reform, Iraq War), Obama (Obamacare in 2010 and its flawed rollout in 2014) and Trump (Obamacare repeal) all did or proposed controversial things that irritated voters. Maybe if Biden sticks to popular stuff he’ll buck the trend. But it could instead be the case that voters from the president’s party tend to be kind of fat and happy in midterms, while the opposition is inspired to turn out. So even if Biden does popular things, GOP voters could be more motivated to vote in November 2022.
Fourth, voters may like a president’s policies in the abstract but still think he isn’t doing a good job or that his policies aren’t that effective if those policies aren’t bipartisan. Think of this as the Mitch McConnell theory.
Early in Obama’s first term, the last time Democrats had control of the House, Senate and the presidency, the Kentucky senator and others in the GOP leadership came up with a strategy of trying to get as few congressional Republicans as possible to back then-President Obama’s ideas. As McConnell said publicly back then, he viewed voters as not especially attuned to the day-to-day happenings in Washington. Instead, he said, they evaluate a president in part based on whether his agenda seems divisive, particularly a president who campaigns on unifying the country (as both Obama and Biden did). That allows the opposition party to create the perception of division simply by voting against the president’s agenda.
Put another way: The opposition party can guarantee a lack of bipartisan support — and then criticize the president for lacking bipartisan support.
Maybe history won’t repeat itself. But being the “Party of No” in the Obama years resulted in the GOP winning the House, the Senate and then the presidency from 2010 to 2016. It is totally logical that a party still led by key figures from the Obama era (McConnell and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy) would think total opposition to a Democratic president would work again.
The fifth reason is a more complicated one: Swing voters may not swing to the party with the most popular policies — either because they don’t engage with politics in that way or because they are motivated by non-policy concerns. The Democratic Party and much of the media (either implicitly or explicitly) approach American politics using a “median voter” model of political success. That model goes like this: Some voters hold mostly liberal views, some hold mostly conservative views and then some hold views somewhere in the ideological middle. Candidates and parties who hold more centrist views will do better electorally because they will win the backing of voters in the ideological middle, as well as those on either the left or right.
Following this median voter approach, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden spent 2019 and 2020 pushing ideas that were popular with the party’s base and voters in the middle. They avoided stances — such as defunding the police or Medicare for All — that were not as popular. This view seems intuitive. And it’s hard to argue that it’s wrong — Democrats won the House, Senate and presidency in 2018 and 2020 following this approach. And it’s likely that Democrats would have done worse if they fully embraced unpopular ideas.
Where this gets more complicated is when considering the magnitude of this median approach. There’s clearly some electoral benefit in pursuing a more popular agenda, all else being equal. But how big is it? It’s not at all clear that Republicans suffer a lot from opposing popular ideas or proposing unpopular ones. And it’s not at all clear that Democrats gain significantly from running on things that poll well. Trump didn’t really pursue the median voter much in the 2020 election cycle — think of how he expressed skepticism about mask-wearing last year, contradicting the views of a clear majority of Americans, or how he pushed to put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, even as polls suggested that most Americans wanted to let the winner of the presidential election choose the replacement for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s not that Trump did only unpopular things, but he did not seem to be courting the majority of the public’s support in his policy moves during his campaign or much of his tenure in office.
I think that’s why many in the media and in politics, myself included, were inclined to believe polls that showed Trump trailing in the high single digits around Election Day. It fit this general median voter model — Trump had governed in an unpopular way, punctuated by his handling of COVID-19, and it made sense to think that voters in the middle of the electorate would punish him severely.
Trump lost, but his 4.5-percentage-point defeat nationally was closer than most polls suggested.
Why didn’t Trump face a bigger backlash? Well, the partisanship of the electorate no doubt played a big role. There were a ton of voters who were never going to back a Democrat, no matter how moderate the candidate or how many controversial stands Trump took.
That said, it’s possible that the median voter concept either wasn’t that sound in the first place or is increasingly outdated. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman has written, there are swing voters — but they aren’t necessarily centrists who choose the candidate closest to the middle. Swing voters often have either a hodgepodge of views (some on the left, some on the right) and/or don’t have strongly defined views at all. That doesn’t mean that either party should nominate an extremist — it’s likely someone with extreme views will turn off more swing voters more than a candidate closer to the middle. But it suggests that a candidate who positions themself in the center may not reap large electoral benefits.
“If liberals were right about how politics worked, Donald Trump should never have been possible, and his party should have suffered crushing, generational defeats in the wake of his election, especially last November,” said Will Stancil, an expert on civil-rights law and policy who works at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.
He added, “Politics is as much irrational, emotive factionalism as anything else. But liberals only seem capable of understanding it as an orderly marketplace of ideas and will contort themselves in pretzels to preserve the fiction that voters’ commitments are rational and mechanical.”
Furthermore, taking popular stands may not matter that much if voters don’t hear about it. Or if they don’t factor those stands into how they vote. So it’s likely that some Americans either didn’t know about Biden’s popular policy stands in 2020 or didn’t focus on them when they decided how to vote, instead thinking more about the negative things about Biden circulating in conservative media or among QAnon believers. Biden and Trump aren’t on the ballot in 2022. But you can see how Democrats might again run on a bunch of policies that poll well, assume that they are reaching a big bloc of voters in the ideological middle but end up not doing that well among swing voters.
“Arguing that Democrats’ push for popular policies or Republican opposition to them is going to sway voters’ views of the parties relies on an unspoken assumption that accurate news of who is supporting what will actually reach voters,” said Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh. “But it’s the right wing that dominates the ‘last mile’ communications infrastructure into millions of Americans’ homes: the memes shared in Facebook groups, the radio personalities who are known and trusted,” she said.
Democrats could gain seats in next year’s midterms and win the presidency in 2024 because they are touting popular ideas and the GOP is opposing them. They might have the right strategy. But it’s not obviously true that their approach will work. Republicans are making a somewhat counterintuitive bet that opposing popular bills won’t kill them electorally — and there are a lot of good reasons to think that they are right.