It’s all partisan —except jobs

I enjoy reading a good poll like you or others may relish curling up with a good book. A good poll — to me — is one that surprises, which tells me something I don’t already know or that provides a startling new insight. Most every poll I look at today tells me pretty much the same boring story over and over: partisanship drives our opinions, except when it comes to jobs and the economy, and those are the top concerns of everyone, whether Republican or Democrat. American public opinion is stuck in a ditch and cannot seem to claw its way out. Pollsters therefore have a hard time crafting questionnaires that can elicit much that’s really new.

Partisanship is a big part of the problem. American has become a nation of partisan zombies that struggle to have a serious thought outside their partisan ties. If I ask a Democrat or a Republican a question about education, healthcare, guns, energy or environment, their first instinct is to intuit how their own party or the other party might think about the issue. I am a Democrat, so I must favor higher taxes for schools, universal healthcare, renewable energy mandates and so forth. Or, I am a Republican, so I should support charter schools, oppose gun control and doubt climate change. The causal arrow points from partisanship to attitudes and opinions. Once upon a time, we thought the arrow went the other direction — that we first had opinions that then motivated us to “join up” with one party or the other. Normatively, that seemed proper and rational. As a thinking democracy, we assumed that citizens would use their powers of reasoning to develop a political philosophy that is then better represented by one of the two parties. Reasoning, rationality and other issue-based thinking got hijacked somewhere along the way, and most all of us just decided to let our party do our thinking for us.

Even the so-called nonpartisans — independent and unaffiliated voters — seem to have caught the same disease. They seem to belong to a silent populism party that unthinkingly takes the position that seems most inconsistent with conventional thinking, whether Democratic or Republican. Independents seem intuitively drawn to any position that challenges the sacred cows of the establishment. Whenever Democrats or Republicans take a cartoonish stance on one side or another, the unaffiliated voter moves in to counter it. It’s hard to explain, but I can predict with 90-plus percent accuracy where the nonpartisans will land on issues polled. They are seldom interestingly unpredictable.

The one issue that cuts across all this partisanship is the economy. Voters of every political stripe overwhelmingly believe it’s the top issue in this country. Job creation is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue any more. How do we explain this? The universality could simply be based on our real-world circumstance. Since 2007, our economy has been in the dumps and everyone is suffering, both Republicans and Democrats, as well as independents. So we all, nearly equally, assign the highest issue agenda standing to economic matters. But I could argue that partisanship could shape our opinions more than is evident. For example, Republicans could give even more precedence to jobs and the economy because ongoing recession bears witness to the failures of the Obama Democrats to restart our struggling economic engine. Democrats could stress the economy more to tag the Republicans for policies that send jobs overseas. Independents could highlight economics as the biggest failure of the partisan establishment.

Why does neither party seek to “own” the jobs issue? It seems like such an obvious target with tantalizing payoffs for winners. I suspect it’s a fear of failure — fear of failing to fix the economy and then failing to benefit politically even if they did.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.