A NEW POLL AND ‘THREATS TO DEMOCRACY’ A new survey from NBC News has some sobering results for Democrats who have been growing more optimistic in recent weeks about their prospects in November’s midterm elections. Voter unhappiness with the direction of the country is still high, and President Joe Biden’s job approval rating is still low. The broad themes of the poll are along the lines of what was discussed in last Friday’s newsletter, which had the headline, “Biden is still dragging his party down.”
But the part of the survey that seemed really striking was what appeared to be an extraordinary shift in voter priorities. The question was simple: What is the most important issue facing the country? This is how NBC’s Chuck Todd reported the answer: “For the first time ever,” Todd said, “when asked what is the most important issue facing this country, the top answer was not an economic issue. It was threats to democracy — higher than cost of living or jobs or guns or even abortion.”
Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans quickly adopted the finding as a new talking point. “Encouraging to see that Americans now understand that ‘threats to democracy’ is the top issue facing the country,” tweeted John Dean, the Watergate figure who has become a prominent anti-Trump talking head. “New NBC News poll shows top issue of voters is ’threats to democracy’ overtaking inflation,” tweeted lefty talker and CNN contributor Dean Obeidallah. “It’s time for Dems to lean in hard on how the GOP is no longer a political party but a white nationalist FASCIST movement!”
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But the “threats to democracy” result is not as clear as it might seem. To start, when Todd announced, “For the first time ever…” — well, it was indeed a first for the NBC poll because its pollsters had not asked respondents about “threats to democracy” before. Just look at the results from the same poll in May. No one named “threats to democracy” as the most important issue because it was not on the list of issues presented to respondents.
A second point concerns the “threats to democracy” results versus the results on economic concerns. When asking about the most important issue facing the country, the NBC pollsters gave respondents a list of topics — crime, climate change, immigration, abortion, etc. One of those choices was, of course, “threats to democracy.” But when it came to economic issues, the NBC pollsters split the topic in two. One choice was “cost of living” and the other was “jobs and the economy.” So in the poll, 21% named “threats to democracy” as the most important issue, while 16% named “cost of living” and 14% named “jobs and the economy.” Combine the two economic issues, and you’ve got 30% most concerned about economic issues versus 21% most concerned about “threats to democracy.” Dividing economic issues in two allowed “threats to democracy” to be the voters’ top concern.
Third, and finally, who believes “threats to democracy” is the nation’s most important problem? Are they Democrats who see former President Donald Trump as a grave danger to American democracy? Or are they Trump followers who believe elections are rigged and thus are a threat to democracy?
A look inside the NBC numbers offers some answers. Of the 21% who named “threats to democracy” as the nation’s most important problem, just over half, 53%, were Democrats. Thirty-two percent were Republicans, and 11% were independents.
The Democrats were party loyalists. One sign: Among all poll respondents, Republicans had a slight lead, 2 percentage points, on the question of whether they would like to see a Congress controlled by Republicans or by Democrats. But among the group that named “threats to democracy” as the nation’s most important issue, Democrats had a huge 38-point lead — 68% who want to see a Democratic Congress versus 30% who want to see a Republican Congress. The “threats to democracy” group also strongly supports the Jan. 6 committee investigation and holds Trump responsible for the Capitol riot.
So what to make of the “threats to democracy” result? About one-third of them are Republicans who want to see the GOP win control of Congress. Did they answer the question the way they did because they are concerned about rigged elections and Zuckerbucks and election laws that favor Democrats? The poll does not say, but that is a reasonable guess, at least for some.
The larger number, the 53% who are Democrats plus the 11% who are independents, together almost two-thirds of those who named “threats to democracy,” appear to support Democrats for Congress. Did they answer the question the way they did because they see Trump and Trump-following Republicans as threats to American democracy? Again, that’s a reasonable guess.
So bottom line, what does the “threats to democracy” poll question say about the voters’ concerns? First, the answer has become an article of faith among some Democrats. Second, it has at least two meanings and can also encompass Republicans with an entirely different set of concerns. And third — and this should be no surprise — it is not as important in the voters’ minds as economic concerns.
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