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While the Biden Administration asserts that Americans are ready for "a once in a lifetime, once in a generation investment in America's infrastructure," recent polling on the $2T "American Jobs Plan package suggests Americans are much more ambivalent.
Support for the proposed legislation ranges from a high of 64 percent in a New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll to a low of 36 percent in the CNBC/All America Economic survey. Quinnipiac and Reuters/Ipsos both pegged support for the plan in the mid-40's (44 percent and 45 percent respectively), while an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey showed more robust support for the American Jobs Plan at 54 percent.
The good news for Democrats is that more Americans like the idea of a big spending infrastructure bill than dislike it. The gap between support and opposition ranges from +20 (NYT/SurveyMonkey) to +3 (CNBC). That's a lot better than the reception the 2017 GOP tax legislation got from Americans. As Frank Newport of Gallup wrote in 2019 about the new law: "The tax law received a very negative reading from the public in early December 2017, and, as I have noted, Americans have been negative about it ever since."
The good news for Republicans is that the bill isn't as popular — or well-known — as the COVID relief bill. Nor, as CNN's Harry Enten points out, is infrastructure as high a priority for voters as defeating COVID or reviving the economy. This gives Republicans an opportunity to define it in their terms, namely that it's too much money getting doled out for too many unrelated projects. And, there's some evidence that that line of attack may be effective. When asked if they felt like the Biden Administration wanted to "spend too much/too little/or just the right amount of money," 48 percent of voters (including 56 percent of independents) in the Quinnipiac poll said "too much" while 45 percent said "too little or about right." In a similar vein, 55 percent of respondents in the CNBC survey said they were more concerned that "the federal government will spend too much money trying to support the economy and as a result drive up the budget deficit," while just 32 percent said they were most concerned that the "federal government will spend too little money trying to support the economy and as a result, the country's problems will last longer."
Democrats are well aware that they need to — as one Democratic strategist put it to me — "take control of the tax narrative." To do that, they plan on casting the issue as one of fairness by putting the burden on rich people and corporations to pay their "fair share."
Polling suggests this could work. The most recent Quinnipiac poll found 44 percent supported and 38 percent opposed a stand-alone bill. But, when told that the bill would be funded by raising taxes on corporations, support increased to 53 percent with 39 percent opposed. The Marist poll found 65 percent support for "increasing taxes on those making over $400K" to help fund it.
Moreover, while voters may not know much about the plan overall, the components of the legislation — more funding for broadband, bridges and roads — are very popular. "The fact is that the plan is not well known at all at this point," Jay Campbell of Hart Research and one of the pollsters on the CNBC survey told me. But, "individual components of the plan are wildly popular, including with that 31% who have no opinion at the outset. The key to selling this plan will be to sell its parts as much as (maybe more than) the whole, which is kind of unusual for policy like this. But it is very clear that nobody cares whether something is "really infrastructure" or not."
As I was digging into all of this polling and emailing back and forth with different pollsters and strategists, I was reminded of a conversation I had a while back with a seasoned Democratic strategist. While this person was confident in Biden's ability to avoid being labeled as a 'tax and spender' he also cautioned Democrats not to feel overconfident in the current polling. "Democrats need to be aware: voters boundaries are always lurking, waiting to rise to the fore."
One of the first places we might see those boundaries move would be in battleground suburbs that have drifted toward Democrats during the Trump years. Liesl Hickey, a GOP strategist, has been helping to lead qualitative research of these voters for the last year with N2 America and Public Opinion Research. Since January, they conducted weekly online focus groups with 40 suburban college-educated men and women from sixteen different states, including Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania.
In a summary of N2 America's findings, they write that "overall, these voters were 'cautiously optimistic that positive changes will be made' because the country is 'correcting' and getting back on track. For most suburban voters, this 'optimistic' view comes from a renewed sense of normalcy, the country opening back up 'and people getting back to work,' and the positive progress of vaccinations." They like Biden personally and think he's done a good job tackling the pandemic. But, "higher taxes and spending” are key concerns for them, and the various Biden proposals "has these fiscally worrisome suburban voters concerned."
Many of these voters were turned off by Trump's style and the chaos surrounding his presidency. But, says Hickey, "now that we are moving beyond personality-dominated politics, suburban voters are reverting back to their center-right DNA. They are paying close attention to policies, especially taxes and immigration, and they don't like what they see coming out of the White House and Democrat-controlled Congress."
"I like Biden's positive character," said a California suburban man surveyed by N2 America, "but I am concerned about his spending more money than we can afford. The $1.9 trillion stimulus was absurd. Many of those receiving a stimulus will not need it while some who are very poor will get little or none." Another suburban Arizona male praised Biden for "addressing all of the important and pertinent issues, including the 3rd stimulus passing and the vaccines being distributed in a timely manner." But, he notes "I am not real sure what he intends to do with the proposed income tax hike; not a real good time to be raising taxes until the economy has improved."
It's clear that Biden believes he has a mandate for getting big programs into law. What's not yet clear is if voters are on the same page. But, there's a reason he's moving fast. With the bill still relatively popular — but softly defined, Democrats can't afford to give Republicans time to gin up distrust of the legislation. Another reason for the fast turnaround time; redistricting. Once new lines are drawn (or even discussed in detail), there may be more Democratic members feeling vulnerable to 2022 pressure. Moreover, there seems to be less hesitancy or hand-wringing from moderates about over-reach than there was in 2009-10. Some of this is because there are many fewer moderates left. But, the other is that politics has become much more of a zero-sum game. Members recognize that their hold of majorities in Congress or the White House is fleeting. With both history and redistricting working against Democrats in 2022, going big and losing next November may not be any riskier than going minimal and...still losing in the midterms.
Image credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci