The Stunning ‘Role of Government’ Numbers

While most people seem fascinated by shifts in presidential job approval and national ballot tests, I’ve always thought that the “role of government” question asked in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The responses to that question offer interesting insights into how voters see government, which, in turn, affects how they view the two parties and how they behave when the next election rolls around.

Officeholders and activists tend to be ideologues, viewing every election result and legislative initiative from their own worldview.

Conservatives always favor less government, while progressives favor more, no matter what government is doing at a particular moment. But Americans as a whole are more pragmatic.

They swing from thinking there is too much government to thinking that government is doing too little. Invariably, their attitudes reflect the news, the behavior of Congress and the agenda of the president.

During activist, liberal presidencies, voters start showing their nervousness about too much government, too much regulation and too much social engineering. They tilt toward thinking that government is doing things better left to the private sector.

But during a more pro-business, conservative administration, those same voters worry that the private sector will abuse its freedom and power. And they start to think that government isn’t doing enough to protect the rights of individuals.

The “role of government” question, which has been asked by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey since at least 1995, seeks to take the public’s temperature about the correct role of government. The two most recent polls that asked respondents about their views of government were conducted after Trump became president — April 2017 and January 2018.

Sizable shifts

Both surveys showed a dramatic swing toward concern that government is not doing enough “to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.”

In the Jan. 13-17, 2018, survey, 58 percent of adults said government should do more, while only 38 percent said government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” — a 20-point difference. That is a huge gap, historically.

In most cases, the difference between the two alternatives has been in the low- to middle-single digits. While men split roughly evenly between the two alternatives in this month’s survey, women said government should “do more” by a ratio of at least 2-to-1. It was even higher for women with at least a college degree.

The change from a January 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey (the beginning of Barack Obama’s second year in the White House) is remarkable.

While 45 percent of women with at least a college degree said in 2010 that government should do more, 69 percent said so this year — an increase of 24 points.

Among whites, the number saying government should do more shot up from 37 percent in 2010 to 54 percent this month.

And in the suburbs, respondents calling for more government action grew from 39 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2018.

The large margins among all respondents favoring “more government” is a dramatic change from surveys conducted a few years ago, when just a few points separated the two groups.

In July 2015, 50 percent of respondents said government should do more to help people, while 46 percent said it was doing too many things better left to business and individuals.

In November 2014, the gap was 6 points (52 percent “do more” to 46 percent “doing too much”). And in June 2014, 50 percent of Americans thought government was doing too many things, while only 46 percent thought government should do more.

In fact, the last time those favoring “more government” had an edge comparable to this month’s survey was in September 2007, when respondents said the government should do more by a margin of 17 points. Of course, Barack Obama was elected president shortly, about a year later.

Trump factor

Before you jump to conclusions about the midterms or 2020, let me offer two caveats.

First, the “role of government” numbers can jump around (sometimes because of short-term events), so it is wise to be cautious about reading too much into a survey or two.

For example, in June 2013, equal numbers of respondents thought government was doing too much and not doing enough. Three months later, by 8 points, respondents thought government should do more. Nine months later, respondents, by 4 points, thought government was doing too much.

Second, Donald Trump’s agenda isn’t easily classified as either “pro-government” or “pro-business.”

While he actively promotes deregulation and empowering corporate America, he has also been active highlighting trade issues, criticizing individual companies and advocating more jobs.

Given that, it probably isn’t surprising that the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 30 percent of Trump voters saying that government isn’t doing enough, compared to only 12 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who said government is doing too many things.

So Trump isn’t necessarily in as bad a position as you might think, given the responses to the “role of government” question.

Still, the dramatic shift in sentiment about the government’s role and behavior from before Trump’s election to after suggests that many voters believe the president and his party have gone too far to the right, favoring business and private groups at the expense of many Americans.

Moreover, the “role of government” numbers seem consistent with the president’s poor job approval numbers even at a time of economic expansion and strong Wall Street performance.

Together, the responses from the two polls are a warning to the GOP about what November could look like.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 30, 2018.

Watch the Polls, Ignore the Post-Shutdown Chatter

Over the past few weeks, members of Congress, journalists and television hosts agreed on one thing: The looming government shutdown was a huge deal. Then, after the shutdown ended, those same people pontificated about who won and who lost, as well as about liberal dissatisfaction with the deal to open the government. Here is my advice: ignore most or all of this chatter.

Instead, focus on two new national polls, one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and the other from The Washington Post and ABC News.

They are far more helpful in understanding the political landscape and how the brief shutdown will affect our politics.


Because the shutdown was never a big deal politically. As long as it didn’t drag on for weeks and months, the shutdown was always more of an opportunity for feigned outrage, finger-pointing and media hype than political realignment.

Some perspective

In October and November of 2013, Republicans got blamed for the government shutdown, leading many observers to predict the party would suffer in the 2014 midterms.

But less than a couple of months later, the political situation flipped after the inept rollout of the health care law overshadowed the shutdown.

In November 2014, the GOP gained House and Senate seats.

In other words, the 2013 shutdown was a big deal — until it wasn’t.

Once again, other developments this year — President Donald Trump’s tweets, the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, events associated with North Korea, how Congress handles the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and infrastructure spending, and five other things I can’t imagine now — will overshadow memories of the shutdown well before Americans go to the polls in November.

So who won the shutdown fight?

Nobody, if by “won” you mean redefined the parties and changed the trajectory of the election cycle.

Democrats joined Republicans to shut off debate and advance a three-week stopgap measure after receiving assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he intends to hold votes on immigration after Feb. 8.

Many observers (including almost everyone on CNN on Monday) noted that McConnell never guaranteed anything, leading them to conclude that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had “lost.”

But Schumer put a stake in the ground, elevated an issue (DACA) that is a priority for his party and its voters, and withdrew to fight another day — possibly in less than three weeks.

Now, he and his party are in a better position to fight McConnell, House Republicans or the president if and when Congress fails to protect the Dreamers, young people brought illegally to the United States as children, who are protected by DACA.

The vote to cut off debate certainly revealed a divide on tactics and strategy inside Democratic ranks.

But while that division may well matter in the race for the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2020, it won’t be a big deal in 2018. Liberal Democrats aren’t going to stay home in November.

What counts

So, while you should keep your eye on immigration as a potentially big midterm issue, don’t get too caught up in dissecting the brief government shutdown. It was a skirmish, not a major war.

But two very recent national surveys that show how voters see the country — and how those perceptions affect future political confrontations — are worth your attention.

Most people use their existing impressions about the parties and the nation’s leaders as a lens through which to view and understand events.

Since the president’s numbers are so poor, every political confrontation in which he is involved contains risk for his party.

Trump’s job approval and personal ratings in the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey were almost identical. Only 39 percent of respondents approved of his job performance and only 36 percent had a positive view him.

On the other hand, 57 percent of respondents disapproved of his job performance and 56 percent disapproved of him personally.

Even worse for Republicans, 51 percent  of those surveyed strongly disapproved of the president’s performance and 48 percent viewed him “very” negatively.

The same poll gave the president very weak scores for “caring about average people,” “being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency,” “being honest and trustworthy,” and “having the right temperament.”

Moreover, a stunning 52 percent of those polled said they don’t like Trump personally and they disapprove of many of his policies.

The Jan. 15-18 ABC News/Washington Post poll painted a very similar picture. It showed Trump’s job approval rating at 36 percent and voters critical of his positions on immigrants, the Mueller investigation and the new tax law.

The problem for Republicans is that voters are not likely to believe explanations offered by politicians they don’t like. And many of them really don’t like Trump, personally or professionally. (The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed McConnell’s personal ratings at 13 percent positive/39 percent negative — even worse than Trump’s.)

Any dramatic event that catches the national media’s attention — and the public’s — offers an opportunity for the parties and the president to redefine themselves and their opponents. But it is also true that you can’t make a first impression twice.

The president is not an ill-defined public figure. Americans know who he is and what he believes. And that is a problem for many Republicans next week, next month and in the fall.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 24, 2018.

It’s a Blue House Wave, But Not Yet a Senate One

The odds are greater than half we will take back the Senate.” — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Monday night 

Democrats ought to temper their optimism about the fight for the Senate this year.

Yes, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama’s special election gives their party a path to a Senate majority in November. But at this point, it remains an unlikely path, despite the official party line.

Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

Republicans don’t need to win all those states or most of them or even some of them. They need only one, unless another GOP-held seat comes into play.

While Democratic strategists are trying to flip the House by targeting districts Hillary Clinton carried and seats where minorities, younger voters and suburbanites are anti-Trump, Senate Democratic strategists must hold on to a handful of rural, religious, conservative and very white states to have any chance of flipping the Senate. That’s quite a challenge.

Democratic incumbents in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states with diverse electorates, appear to be in good shape. Trump carried both states very narrowly, and greater Democratic unity and enthusiasm during the midterms should help the party retain those Senate seats.

Tougher races

The outcome in Wisconsin is less certain, since Republicans and Democrats disagree about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s vulnerability.

On one hand, Trump carried the state very narrowly (with 48 percent of the vote), and Baldwin has proved her mettle.

On the other hand, the state is certainly competitive, Baldwin is among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP know how to win nasty, hard-fought statewide races. One Republican insider praised his state party effusively, calling it among the best in the country.

My own view is that the state’s battle lines are already drawn and a relatively small number of persuadable voters in the middle will decide the election’s outcome.

That said, any Democratic wave is likely to hurt GOP prospects here, so I’d be surprised if Baldwin loses. But the race certainly bears watching.

That leaves control of the Senate up to seven states, only one of them a 2016 nail-biter: Florida. Two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott has personal wealth, and that would make him a threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term.

But Trump carried Florida with 49 percent, winning by just 1.2 points, and events over the last year are likely to cost the Republicans support, especially with suburbanites, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic voters. Scott is likely to run but has not yet announced his plans.

Trump carried Ohio with almost 52 percent, and his 8-point victory margin was large for the swing state. GOP Rep. James B. Renacci just jumped into the race after state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out.

Democrats can’t take this seat for granted, but incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is a fierce campaigner. His blue-collar populism should win back some Trump voters, and likely strong Democratic turnout gives him the advantage.

Trump won Montana much more comfortably (with 56 percent), but the GOP field against Sen. Jon Tester is uninspiring.

Tester is another terrific campaigner, which gives him the edge.

Four toss-ups

Even if they hold all those seats, Democrats are left with four terribly difficult states to defend: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Trump carried West Virginia by 42 points (69 percent to 27 percent) and North Dakota by 36 points (63 percent to 27 percent).

Those are huge mountains that Sens. Joe Manchin III and Heidi Heitkamp must climb, and each will have to attract thousands of Trump voters to win re-election in two increasingly polarized and partisan states.

Of course, those two Democrats, as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins, have run well ahead of unpopular presidential nominees before.

Collins ran 21 points ahead of GOP nominee John McCain in Maine in 2008, while in 2012 Manchin ran 25 points ahead of President Barack Obama in West Virginia, and Heitkamp more than 10 in North Dakota.

It’s also true that Heitkamp and Manchin are both strong campaigners who have built up personal relationships with voters in lightly populated states. (Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who recently held both North Dakota Senate seats, did the same thing.)

The two final states, Missouri and Indiana, may be the most challenging tests for the Democrats.

Trump carried each with 57 percent of the vote. But these larger states are more difficult for incumbents to personalize. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is a quality candidate, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill has found a way to win twice when she was not expected to, but both are in office now because their 2012 opponents were inept.

This time, Republicans will have strong nominees in both states — Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri and one of three Indiana Republican hopefuls, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

A Democratic sweep of all 10 races would be remarkable. It’s certainly true that in wave elections all of the competitive Senate races tend to fall in one direction.

Democrats didn’t take away a single Republican seat in 1994 or 2010, and the GOP didn’t swipe a single Democratic Senate seat in 2006.

But none of those years had a Senate map like this one.

For Senate Democrats, the problem is clear — increased Democratic enthusiasm among younger voters, minorities and highly educated suburbanites will help their nominees nationally but not in states like West Virginia, North Dakota or Montana.

So, while the House of Representatives is increasingly at risk in November, the Republican Party’s Senate majority still looks very formidable. At some point this cycle, that chamber may well be “in play.” But it is not there yet.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on Januart 17, 2018.