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Do voters like moderate messages more?
Some new tests of a Slow Boring theory
When the Biden administration decided to approve the Willow oil extraction project in Alaska, I defended their decision on the merits.
Addressing climate change is important, but trying to address climate change through supply constriction has a very unfavorable cost-benefit profile. I’m all for demand-side policies (like a carbon tax) and efforts to facilitate clean energy deployment (like the IRA). But blocking Willow wouldn’t have made sense as climate policy, and the local environmental case against it wasn’t very strong either. Willow was supported by Alaska labor groups, by most Alaska indigenous groups, but Alaska’s Democratic House member, and by both of its Republican senators (including Lisa Murkowksi, who is a reasonable person). Under the circumstances, I thought Biden clearly did the right thing and could use some people saying so in the face of inevitable climate criticisms.
My strong inclination was to disapprove of it across the board but the advice I got from counsel was that if that were the case, I may very well lose that case in court to the oil company and then not be able to do what I really want to do beyond that.
This reflects a broader set of messaging decisions that I find somewhat odd. My sense is that traditionally, politicians try to make themselves sound more moderate than they are. Barack Obama often insisted that his policies were just common sense or based only on the evidence, untouched by ideology. Donald Trump would lie and say he cared passionately about clean air and water, even as his EPA eased up on these rules. Regardless of how the internal debate over Willow really went, once you decide you’re not going to block it, why not position yourself as moderate? When accused of strangling American oil production, the White House will mention that actually, output is at an all-time high, but it’s never something they brag about as part of Bidenomics. But why not put forward the most moderate possible face?
My tendency when talking about this stuff has been to assert that for any given policy, a more moderate frame is more popular. But is that true? I partnered with a public affairs group to conduct a few message tests and their data suggests that, yes, if you are going to build a wall and approve oil projects, you may as well claim credit for it.
My partner on this was Positive Sum Strategies, a polling and public affairs firm that works with NGOs, business and PACs crafting narrative and executing on political strategies. They conduct online panel polls weighted toward the likely electorate using demographics and 2020 election results.
On the particular issue of fossil fuel production, respondents to one phrasing of the question lean toward wanting to increase versus constrain, but “keep things the same” is the winner.
But when asked in a way that forces a hard choice between energy costs and production, reducing costs wins out — note, though, that Democrats actually do say it’s more important to address climate change.
I know it’s hard to know whether to trust polls, but those two results offer a broad sense of the sample we are working with. At any rate, we polled Biden’s actual Willow statement, and as you would expect for any statement crafted by political professionals and not rebutted by any opposing information, it gets a positive rating on net.
But we also gave people a fake Biden statement that touted the record oil production and all-of-the-above energy policy that his administration is pursuing. This statement performed better. Not so much better that it would single-handedly alter the course of American history, but definitely better. And notably, it performed better with Democrats — it’s not like Biden was just picking up Republican support.
My guess is that this kind of base-consolidation is an underrated benefit of rhetorical moderation. It’s hard to make Republicans like anything that you attribute to Joe Biden. But very few people are 10-out-of-10 progressives on every issue under the sun, so whatever the issue, there are always going to be some Dems and independents who like Biden in general but want to hear that he’s taking a prudent, considered approach.
Abortion and the wall
A parallel situation played out recently with the Biden administration moving ahead with construction on a segment of walling on the southern border.
What the administration said about this is that these were funds appropriated back in 2019 and even though they didn’t get spent in 2020, congress never rescinded the appropriation and Biden was legally required to go forward with it. Given that everyone knows Biden is in hot water about immigration, and given that he is building the wall anyway, my instinct is to say he should talk about how he’s securing the border. But the White House’s public message was that the wall is bad and they are simply complying with the law.
Here, again, we tested a fake statement (top) versus what they actually said (bottom), and the fake description of the real policy was more popular. This time the improvement is biggest with Republicans, but note again that Democrats also like the more moderate message more.
Another area where this came up recently on Slow Boring is abortion.
I noted in a past post that in an unscripted moment, Biden reverted to the old-fashioned Catholic Dem message of saying that he was opposed to abortion as a matter of religious faith but supported freedom of choice as a question of public policy. My claim was that more Democrats should consider using this more moderate framing of the pro-choice position. For my trouble, of course, I got slagged on Twitter because everyone knows abortion rights are a winning issue for Democrats.
And they absolutely are. But when we tested a moderate “personally opposed”/“safe, legal, and rare” message against “abortion is a fundamental human right,” it seems like the moderate message does better.
I will be the first to admit that all this just confirms what I thought all along, so I’m genuinely interested to hear whether others find it persuasive. But it seems true to me that if you have a contested political issue with large groups on both sides, you are going to do better with a moderate framing of your position. There’s a larger academic literature by Jan Voelkel and Matthew Feinberg, Feinberg and Rob Willer, and Willer alone about how you can increase support for specific progressive policy ideas by framing them in terms of conservative moral values.
That was all very much on my mind when I wrote “One Billion Americans,” which is very much a patriotic, security-focused argument for expanded immigration and a more generous welfare state. And more broadly, there’s the old observation that the mass public is “symbolically conservative” (i.e., endorses a lot of right-wing abstract ideas) but “operationally liberal” (tends to favor a lot of specific progressive policy positions). This is somewhat different from the message tests we are doing here, but it all paints a consistent picture of the electorate tending to favor politicians with a somewhat messy and blah public profile rather than ideological consistency.
Wither “the groups”
So what gives? Why don’t Democrats do this?
I know that on climate, the White House claims to believe that one of their political problems is young people not being sufficiently aware of how much Biden has done to address the climate crisis. I don’t understand what information they have received makes them think that. As far as I can tell, everyone in the progressive universe has seen the same data I have saying the most popular parts of the IRA are the health provisions, but people have heard about those less than they’ve heard about climate.
On abortion, conversely, I know that the pro-choice groups have made a concerted effort over the years to purge the party of this kind of wishy-washy language because they felt it in some sense “validated” Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers. The way these TRAP laws work is that instead of saying “oh abortion is illegal now,” you place unreasonable bad-faith regulatory burdens on abortion clinics to try to make them impossible to operate. The argument that someone using wishy-washy rhetoric while re-affirming their commitment to Roe somehow causes TRAP laws to pass never really made sense to me. But at a time when abortion is completely banned across huge swathes of the country, I’m also not sure that’s really the relevant consideration. Abortion rights has been a big lift to Democrats in certain places, but not big enough to suddenly turn Texas into a blue state or to win senate races in Iowa. So if you actually want to protect abortion rights, you need a broader message.
But beyond that, I don’t understand why it would be bad to offer voters multiple conceptual paths to the pro-choice outcome. I don’t have any religious objections to abortion, so I really don’t care, but there are a lot of Democrats (particularly Black and Hispanic ones) who are likely to hear anti-abortion messages at church, and letting them know that they are welcome in the coalition seems clearly good.
It seems to me that what we’re really dealing with here is the mysterious psychic power of the groups. It makes perfect sense, for example, that a climate change advocacy group would, in fact, advocate for emissions-reducing measures with a bad cost-benefit profile. And obviously pro-choice donors and staffers and volunteers are very unlikely to be personally opposed to abortion or they would find something to do with their money and time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But why would candidates feel the need to mirror the messages of single-issue advocacy groups?
Some of it is intellectual error. Some of it may be murder-suicide threats. My guess, though, is that the bigger issue is just that the groups have larger and more stable budgets than political campaigns. If you’re a pollster or consultant, the work you do for frontline members is largely a hobby or sideline compared to your bread and butter of working for advocacy groups. America has strong partisanship but weak formal parties, and the outsourcing of power to the progressive blob rather than to elected officials and state parties means that political professionals are just ambiantly wired to be hyper-attentive to the groups’ needs and are much less interested in swing voters.