Benenson has teamed up with Neil Newhouse, a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm, on a research project warning that Democrats are heading into next year’s midterm elections amid echoes of Obama’s first two years in office that resulted in a resounding defeat in the 2010 midterms that cost the party its House majority.
So much political capital was spent on a nearly year-long effort to pass the Affordable Care Act that few voters rewarded Democrats when it finally became law in the spring of 2010, and, 12 years later, Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda has turned into another messy process fight.
At the heart of the Benenson-Newhouse research is something Democrats worried about a dozen years ago, when those messy negotiations took up so much bandwidth yet were also out of sync with what many swing voters prioritized. In late 2009 and early 2010, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, key swing voters cared most about jobs and not expanding access to health insurance. Today’s voters appear to be most concerned about the ongoing global pandemic and are not deeply invested in the haggling over proposals such as expanding Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision benefits.
“The conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country,” Newhouse said during a 45-minute telephone interview with Benenson.
The two pollsters squared off in 2008 and 2012, as Newhouse worked for John McCain and Mitt Romney, but now they do surveys together for Center Forward, a centrist think tank with ties to moderate Democrats and Republicans and establishment institutions in Washington.
It has become fashionable to talk about how few undecided voters exist in this polarized era, but both pollsters view this small bloc as the difference between a sweeping GOP victory and Democrats’ narrowly retaining their already narrow majority, especially after the 2018 and 2020 elections realigned centrist suburban voters solidly into the Democratic coalition.
Benenson gives Biden huge credit for winning independents by a net gain of 12 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Now they are turning away from Biden and his agenda: 70 percent of independent voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction, according to the seven-page memo the pollsters wrote for Center Forward.
In their survey of more than 2,600 likely voters, the pollsters asked respondents to cite their three most important issues. Democratic voters chose climate change, pandemic recovery and “raising taxes on the rich” as their most important issues, closely followed by “health insurance coverage/costs.”
And now Democrats in Washington are crafting a multitrillion-dollar agenda that focuses on expanding access to health care, battling climate change and providing better child care, all financed by taxing the wealthy.
But that menu does not quite match the interests of independent voters, who chose “economy/inflation/jobs” as their top concern, with “immigration and border security” close behind and then “covid-19 pandemic recovery.”
Biden’s push for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to help fight the pandemic was very popular with independent voters. But that was signed into law in March, and most of its benefits will have expired by the time voters go to the polls next fall, causing consternation among Democrats trying to appeal to the suburban swing voters who powered the 40-seat gain that allowed them to reclaim the House majority in 2018.
“We’re not there, and we’re not going to get there if we don’t reach into the center,” Benenson said.
These voters also are keenly afraid of inflation and are concerned about whether massive federal spending — Congress approved more than $5 trillion of pandemic emergency spending from March 2020 to March 2021, with trillions more proposed by Biden for infrastructure and social programs — has fueled rising costs.
Republican candidates will note that 71 percent of independent voters agreed with this statement: “People will continue to pay more money on everyday expenses unless the government becomes more fiscally responsible.”
The conundrum Biden faces is familiar: The individual pieces of this massive agenda are popular, but the package is either too big for voters to comprehend or the price is so high that it sounds scary. Polls in 2009 and 2010 always showed huge support for individual items in the ACA, such as protections for those with preexisting conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance plans through age 25, but support for the overall legislation was uneven at best.
A different analyst, Richard Thau, who oversees the Swing Voter Project, ran a mid-October focus group of a dozen voters who supported Trump in 2016, then voted for Biden last year, showing the voters seven proposals inside the still emerging legislative proposal.
“All 12 respondents want Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription medicines. Eleven support expanding Medicare to offer hearing, dental, and vision services. The same number support various clean energy and climate provisions. Ten support providing child care assistance and universal pre-K,” Thau wrote.
Only extending the child tax credit until 2025, which four supported, received minority support from the group.
But just three of Thau’s 12 voters in the focus group thought all seven items in the proposal should pass.
Democrats need a narrow sales pitch that focuses on just a couple of the most popular proposals that are easily understood, Benenson said. “You have to talk about these things in ways that connect with people’s lives,” he said.
Newhouse thinks some items are false positives for Democrats, particularly the prescription drug issue. For years, polls have found about 80 percent support for allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs, with even a majority of Republicans supporting it.
Yet, just 19 percent of Democrats considered it one of their top three issues, according to Benenson and Newhouse. It fell well below taxing the rich (34 percent) and climate change (50 percent) in terms of importance.
Just 11 percent of independents pegged drug costs as a top-three issue, their 10th most important issue. “Prescription drugs play a minor role,” Newhouse said, pointing to co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs as the real health-care issues for voters.
Congressional Democrats have some silver linings in the overall political climate, particularly given that their Republican counterparts are now net 17 percentage points underwater in terms of favorability with voters.
Democratic voters tend to support their leaders on Capitol Hill far more than GOP voters support their congressional team. A big question next year will be which side will struggle to turn out its voters, whether Democrats will lose their energy now that Donald Trump is out of the White House or if Republicans will struggle to get their core supporters to the polls without Trump on the ballot.
Benenson says he would steer Biden in a different direction to avoid a repeat of 2010.
“He’s gotta lead from the middle out,” he said.