Democrats: Learn How to Read Polls

Democrats nationally have a massive shutdown hangover, having been rolled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pretended to promise something about a vote on the DACA fix next month. Now comes the backlash from both sides: Dems on the left are furious at the party’s leadership for caving, while moderates bemoan the whole idea in the first place, of holding government hostage for a DACA fix. In the end Chuck and company folded because when you go eye to eye with the Mitchman, you discover you can’t win a staring contest with a corpse. But the real problem is that Schumer failed to foresee the obvious problem with their strategy: you can’t hold a hostage for ransom if nobody gives a shit about the ransom.

OK that’s a little strong, I don’t mean to imply that nobody cares about the dreamers. But the polls that are most frequently cited on this issue were used to misconstrue reality. We have heard from Dem and lefty talking heads for days how outrageous it is that congressional Republicans won’t come around on a DACA fix when it’s something everybody wants. This claim is typically paired with a poll result like this one from CBS News earlier this month showing 87% of Americans favor letting dreamers stay, including eight in ten Republicans (and almost nine in ten independents).

Impressive bipartisan numbers, to be sure, but strong support for a position does not equal strong motivated interest in an issue. Many Dems will say hold on, it depends who you ask: while Republicans supporting a DACA fix in large numbers aren’t willing to risk a government shutdown to accomplish it, the Democratic base was. But no, it really wasn’t. Actual support within the party for the shutdown gambit was tepid — not even 60-40 among Dems in the CBS poll, and independents were split down the middle. As recently as November a Morning Consult poll found that only 44% of Democrats saw the DACA fix as a priority (down from the low 50s a couple of months prior).

There is more than ample evidence that while almost everyone gives the pro-dreamer response to pollsters when asked about dreamers, relatively few care all that much about the larger issue in which it is embedded: immigration. By “care all that much” I mean regard it as a public policy priority. There are numerous examples but I’ll cite just a few. In a broad survey of issue priorities early last year, Pew found that fewer than a third of Democrats and Dem leaners viewed immigration as a priority. When people are asked to name the most important problems facing the country, immigration gets single-digit support in recent Gallup surveys. Before the 2016 election immigration was in the single digits as an issue priority, and after the election it remained in the single digits (various polls compiled here). And importantly, those who identify with the GOP aren’t all that fussed about it either. A POLITICO/Harvard poll last fall found fewer than half of Republicans saw limits on immigration as a very important priority, and fewer than a third of independents do.

I cite all of these data not to mount an argument that the DACA issue isn’t significant or that the actual humans behind the acronym don’t matter. Of course it is, and of course they do. My point is that mattering in human terms and mattering in policy terms are two different things, and it appears that Democrats badly stumbled with the shutdown because they seem unable to fathom the distinction. Republicans, on the other hand, did. Here’s how White House legislative affairs chief Marc Short played it on one of the Sunday shows: Democrats are willing “to deny funding to 2 million troops who are serving our country, tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents trying to protect our country, over an issue that’s not even in this bill.” The nugget of the weekend’s endlessly repeated GOP argument (because let’s face it they are so damn disciplined about that) was essentially that Democrats are holding government hostage over an irrelevancy.

Dreamers are not irrelevancies, but outside the core Trumpian base, broad public interest in immigration as a pressing high-priority concern is an irrelevancy. On that basis the Republican robo-argument was, in the context of public opinion, actually pretty sound. By Sunday even Chuck and Nancy had figured out how to read a poll; cue the cave.

The lesson in this for Democrats is not so much about policy or humanity, but (as usual) about messaging. If the party is going to “govern” (when you control nothing scare quotes are the only way to go) as though an issue like immigration matters more than anything else, it had better figure out how to mount a compelling persuasive argument for that. People know who the dreamers are, people want the dreamers to stay, but, alas, they don’t actually care enough to value the ransom over the hostage. Smart kidnappers do the math before they make the grab.

A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.

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