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Polling Matters
Elizabeth Warren's Two Approaches to Government
Polling Matters

Elizabeth Warren's Two Approaches to Government

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has moved to the top tier of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, based in part on her detailed and highly specific plans for addressing the nation's pressing policy issues.

I recently reviewed the challenges facing one of Warren's plans -- a massive government effort designed to create and sustain millions of new jobs in the U.S. But this is just one of the many ways in which Warren proposes to enlarge government intervention in American life. Her plans also call for a larger government role in healthcare, climate change, energy, higher education, farming, breaking up big tech and increased federal taxes.

In addition to her plans for a much-elevated use of government as the means for addressing social problems, Warren also promises major disruption in terms of how government operates. She argues that government is currently in the control of the "wealthy and well-connected" and that we must "put economic and political power back in the hands of the people."

This call for disruption in how government works is not unique to Warren. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 in large part because he promised government disruption by "draining the swamp" in Washington.

So we have Warren (and other candidates) attacking government on two fronts -- calling for disruption in the forces that influence the government, and for changes in the way government power is used to improve people's daily lives.

The general idea of focusing on how government works is certainly timely. The people's relationship to their government is the most important problem facing the nation and, as I have argued, the most important issue facing candidates in the 2020 election. The issue in one way or another has been around from the beginning of our nation; the Founding Fathers spent much of their time trying to figure out what the federal government should or should not do and how it should or should not be done. The president is the chief executive officer of the government. Defining the objectives of the government and how the government should operate are of obvious (and critical) importance to voters in a presidential election.

Americans on Board With Government Disruption

Warren is best positioned in relationship to public opinion when it comes to her call for disrupting the influences that control government. A substantial body of public opinion research shows that Americans believe most elected officials are corrupt; are under the influence of the rich, big corporations and special interests; and are controlled by partisan and ideological rigidity. Americans have little faith in their representatives (18% job approval rating for Congress), and only 39% have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in their government in Washington to handle domestic affairs -- one of the government's core, basic functions.

This desire for shaking up the way government operates is a powerful force and helps explain Trump's and Bernie Sanders' successes in 2016. Both verbalized strong commitments to disrupting the control of government, even while differing diametrically on what government should be doing. Although Hillary Clinton bested Sanders for the Democratic nomination, her neglecting to address Americans' concerns about government power was most likely a part of her failure to meet expectations and beat Trump.

Overall, candidate promises to disrupt how government works are very well-positioned with public opinion. Government disruption resonates with the people's negative view of their elected representatives, and promises of change can generate the emotional power necessary to propel voter turnout.

The ideal presidential candidate thus would argue for significant disruption in the way government works, outlining specific plans for revitalizing Congress, changes in the way representatives are elected, reducing knee-jerk ideological rigidity, fostering a positive view of compromise, and paying more attention to the needs of the people as a whole rather than focusing mainly on primary voters.

Warren's focus on government disruption as a centerpiece of her campaign thus fits well with this description, helping differentiate her from Joe Biden, who to date has not focused on the issue in any depth. As I have discussed previously, Biden's 40+ years of government service gives him potential strength on this dimension, but we haven't seen him take advantage of it so far in his campaign.

Public Less Clear on Massive Government Intervention

Even as Warren has a potential winner with her focus on government reform, she is less well-positioned when it comes to her plans for expanding the role of government. That's because Americans are far from clear on the degree to which government should increase its power over their lives. Americans hold the seemingly contradictory views of being skeptical of government power over their lives while appreciating many government services and regulations. My read of the data is that the public needs nuance when it comes to government power. Americans want discussion of where government should and should not get involved, and ultimately they want compromise.

The ideal presidential candidate would thus focus on detailed, in-depth dialogue -- not rigid, extreme positions -- about the role of government in Americans' lives, recognizing that the public is positive about the role government can and should play in solving many everyday problems, while (at least on an emotional and philosophic basis) remaining leery of too much government intrusion in their lives.

Warren, as noted, is far from this ideal positioning. Her campaign has emphasized bold plans to mobilize government to channel trillions of taxpayer dollars into massive programs relating to the health, education, jobs, student loan repayment, corporate governance, energy, guns, taxes and criminal justice spheres of Americans' lives. These plans have attracted attention, and their specificity has no doubt helped her rise to the top of the list of Democratic candidates. But these plans have immediate conflicts with underlying public concerns about too much government power. To better resonate with public attitudes, she needs to acknowledge the broad disagreements within American public opinion on the ideal position of government power.

Trump shares this same challenge, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Trump has been focused on minimizing and limiting government, without much recognition of the public's appreciation of the benefits of government services and regulations (with the possible exceptions of the Border Patrol, ICE, the military and FEMA). This may be particularly telling in reference to environmental regulations and climate change, where Trump is clearly in contradiction of prevailing public opinion.

Biden, at least in theory, has a potentially more positive positioning when it comes to the role of government. He has talked about using his government experience to bring about compromise and get things done. I think this could be a potential strength, although other observers disagree. Biden in theory could establish a position between the extreme views of Warren and Sanders, who want government to substantially increase its influence in Americans' lives, and the extreme position of Trump, who wants to substantially reduce it.

Bottom Line

Nothing in politics is simple. As I've reviewed, we have strong polling evidence that Americans want compromise. But we also have experiential evidence that sectors of the public react positively to absolutism and ideological rigidity -- as we have seen from Sanders in 2016 and Warren so far this year, and as we saw with Trump in 2016. Clinton, who in 2016 had a much more complex and nuanced approach to issues, was less successful (at least as far as the Electoral College vote went). Apparently, the public gives at least some approbation to candidates who push firm, direct, easy-to-comprehend plans for attacking policy problems, whatever they may be.

When it comes to major disruptions in the way government operates, however, there is much less ambiguity. Americans want and welcome plans to change the way Congress operates and to bring the decision-making of the men and women sent to Washington back under the control of the people of the country.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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