What are surveys telling us about the direction the U.S. is headed in? How has the nature of political and issue polling changed over the past decade? On this week’s episode of The Brief, Civiqs director Drew Linzer joined hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld to unpack the importance of following trends over time and why people choose to fill out online surveys.
Moulitsas cofounded Civiqs, a polling and data analytics firm that conducts public opinion research online, with Linzer in 2013 with the aim of capturing public opinion on a daily basis. Since then, Civiqs has collected over 30 million responses to a variety of survey questions.
So, how did the pair came up with the idea for this polling model and decide to build Civiqs?
As Moulitsas explained, “We said, ‘The future of polling has to change, because people aren’t answering telephone polls anymore, so what comes next?’ We talked about what at the time seemed to me almost science fiction—this idea that we would create this panel with millions of people, and we would ask them questions online and track those questions over time. It seems like science fiction, but Drew built it.”
“Traditional polling is a snapshot in time, and you don’t get the movement between those snapshots,” he added. “If you have a monthly poll, you don’t know if something happened in the middle that cratered the numbers, and then they rose; you just sort of see that snapshot. With Civiqs, we can actually see what moves and, more importantly, what doesn’t move the news. And you kind of find out over time that not a lot moves. People’s opinions are pretty locked.”
Polling enormous numbers of people across the country every day, Linzer said, allows Civiqs to come up with “highly accurate and potentially very stable trendline tracking on what people in the U.S. actually [think],” as opposed to a poll of a couple hundred people here and there, which may not be as accurately representative. Most peoples’ attitudes on issues remain relatively stable, he noted, but on certain issues—especially after major events—big shifts can and do occur. When that happens, Civiqs can observe how quickly and in which direction public opinion is changing, providing insight into what matters in politics and what doesn’t.
Through Civiqs polling, we can break down all of these thousands and thousands of interview responses and see how opinions are changing not just at the top level, but also within demographics. You can go on the site and break out the results by race, by gender, by age and more. As Linzer said,
There’s enough data there over a long enough amount of time that patterns emerge. We present patterns that you can see on the website that really, because of sample size limitations and other constraints, you’d just never be able to see in a standard poll. So it turns out to be a very powerful combination of large samples over long periods of time combined with some modern tools for statistical modeling and data analysis that we’ve got integrated there.
Polling can also help counter common misconceptions or false narratives that have taken hold in the news and society in general. For instance, Moulitsas cited common media narratives that put the onus of vaccine hesitancy on the Black community. Civiqs data was able to show how inaccurate this idea of vaccine hesitancy among the Black community was—and that it was mostly Republicans who were resistant to vaccines—and helped change the narrative.
Linzer, Moulitsas, and Eleveld also discussed the trends in polling they have seen over time, particularly the growing levels of hyperpartisanship. Most recently, this showed up in responses to several questions in Daily Kos’ most recent cobranded poll with Civiqs, specifically regarding the future of democracy in the U.S. “Hardcore Fox News viewers [seem to be] very committed to what their perception of democracy is,” Linzer said of the findings from the poll, adding that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly feel worried about the future of democracy in this country, but they can’t seem to agree what constitutes an attack on democracy.
Moulitsas went on to discuss more generally the capricious nature of public opinion, as it is prone to switching depending on the party affiliation of whoever sits in the White House. “Republicans thought the economy was terrible when Obama was in office. When Trump was in office, all of a sudden they thought it was great.”
Linzer picked up on this train of thought, having seen this type of thought pattern and party loyalty begin to increase over time:
We live in a very polarized time, and a lot of what we measure as pollsters, you could just call partisan cheerleading. People feel strongly identified to which side they’re on—whether for policy reasons, identity reasons, or community or family reasons ... they feel a strong identification with those groups and those party labels. And as soon as those labels go on the choices, people feel that answering a survey is their opportunity to stick up for their side and to help their side win and to show to the world that their side has more support than the other side.
What’s often the most interesting to us and the work we do is when those labels are overwhelmed by events in the world, where people do show room for flexibility or are changing their mind because of what’s happening in their lives. But the overwhelming pattern in the majority of cases is that people feel allegiance to their side and they want to win, and they feel like they’re right.
Eleveld then asked about what Linzer thought was the most undercovered or undersold polling story in the last year. Linzer feels a bit more pessimistic about the public support for the Democratic Party brand following the last election, and shared his thoughts on why:
“I think that after Barack Obama was elected, there was an enormous amount of excitement and enthusiasm for his presidency, and I think Democrats may have overestimated the extent to which his victory marked a permanent shift in American public opinion, and we all know what happened eight years later. I think a similar thing is happening in the wake of Biden’s victory,” he said. Moreover, public opinion of the Democratic Party remains relatively negative:
The Republican Party brand isn’t good, but the Democratic Party brand is not that great either. And according to our tracking, we ask, ‘Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Democratic party?,’ and more people are unfavorable than favorable—52% unfavorable versus only 42% favorable.
I don’t think Democrats have won in any long term, permanent way. I think that there are demographic forces at play. Obviously, occasionally, Democrats win elections, and Biden won. But it could just as easily revert back to a more Republican electorate in the next midterm election or the next presidential election. I think that maybe the conventional wisdom right now is that people in America are very, very happy that Biden won. They’re behind him, they’re behind the Democrats.
I think the public opinion on balance is behind progressive policy ideas … in fact, there are some policies that ... have more public support than Democratic leaders are actually giving it. But the party brand, individual Democratic leaders—there’s not as high support for these folks as you might think. I wouldn’t be so complacent or secure about individual Democrats’ electoral prospects based on the public opinion data I’ve seen.
Offering advice on how to potentially turn this around, Linzer said, “94% of Democrats over the age of 65 have a favorable opinion of the Democratic party … but among people 18+, that falls to 80%. There’s a 14% difference … those people are, theoretically, the easiest to win over. Start there.”
Eleveld agreed with this concern, recalling Obama’s resistance to progress until he needed to secure his reelection: “By the time he finally did that … he had created animosity within the progressive wing of the party against the administration,” including young voters and voters of color. Democrats face the greatest risk if they don’t do anything, she added.
Linzer generally feels positive about progress in this country, and offered these takeaways:
Attitudes are moving in the right direction—and that is across a host of issues. A lot of it is generational, as older voters exit the electorate and are replaced by younger voters, attitudes are moving in a progressive direction. Racial attitudes among Democrats are moving in a very clear direction of progressiveness, [as well as] attitudes on same-sex marriage and transgender issues. Support for legalizing cannabis is absolutely off the charts, and I can’t even fathom why this isn’t a more widely embraced easy win. Citizenship for immigrants versus deportation—people overwhelmingly want [pathways to] citizenship … people support increasing the minimum wage, that’s very strong. Obamacare support keeps going up and up steadily.
On a closing note, Linzer shared how great it is to watch how these attitudes change over time, which is why he worked hard to ensure they started being tracked many years ago: “You never quite know when that tipping point is going to be reached, but we’re starting to see it happen in certain places, and who knows where it’s going to happen next ... I actually think that the major story in public opinion America is there are these very long-term trends that are moving in the progressive direction.”
You can watch the full episode here:
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