12 min read
Discussion on The American Electorate with Rich Baris

Platform had the great fortune this month to sit down with Rich Baris to get his thoughts on the mindset of the American electorate one year into the Biden administration and what this mindset might foreshadow for the midterm elections in the United States. Rich Baris is a noted American pollster and the Director of Big Data Poll. He is also the author of a book on American politics (Our Virtuous Republic: The Forgotten Clause In The American Social Contract).

Platform: Biden’s approval rates are currently sliding. How important are presidential approval rates given the fact that they are not polls measured against a political opponent but rather are a question of approval on the president? Should Biden be more concerned about the polls affecting his ability to get things done along the lines of Richard Neustadt’s thesis [that the president’s power comes from persuasion rather than from direct action]?

Rich Baris: There are a few predictive indicators going into a midterm for a first term incumbent president and fewer that are more predictive than a presidential approval rating. So, how are the parties going to fare going into that first term? [Polling on] Right track/Wrong Track is another one [that is highly predictive]. I think we have to take them with a little grain of salt because we are living in two universes right now. You have the universe where me and some other polling firms definitely show Biden under 40 percent now. We had him at 39 [percent] this month. Whereas some are consistently coming out with what we view to be completely unrealistic numbers. So, I think that kind of fudges the trend a bit. It used to be we had Gallop. They were the gold standard and we relied on them and that is how we measured all those years past in the 20th century. Now we have too many polls and not enough really accurate pollsters. That is the problem. But it [polling numbers] is still very important and it is something that Democrats know is going to hang around them like a noose weighing them down.With both your questions, we are in a little bit of unchartered territory. Everyone knows that approval rating is predictive, yet we don’t know how predictive if we are looking at these range of polls that vary from Quinnipiac that put Biden at 33 percent approval versus Fox News who repeatedly comes out with 45 to 47 percent. I personally don’t know how they get there but they are getting there. On the flip side of that, typically a bad approval rating, especially in a first term, like Biden has kills the agenda but they [the Democrats] don’t seem to care. This time we are in very different territory, and we have to throw the playbook out because typically other lawmakers would look at his approval rating and they would say, “I am not dying on this hill. This guy is unpopular and that is it.” If you look at the Eighties when Reagan rebounded, he had to deal with a Democratic [controlled] Congress but Tip O'Neill and him worked together. O’Neill’s fellow members were too afraid to go against Ronald Reagan because he was too popular. Now, it is really almost like they are operating under the assumption it doesn’t matter. Maybe they view this man to be a one termer and that is it. Maybe they have succumbed to that he is older, he is not in great shape, and is not popular. Maybe they are resigned to the fact that let’s get done as much as we can done now and ignore the polls. Biden was asked about that around a week ago and he flatly said he didn’t believe the polls. That sounds like the last president, right? He got a lot of criticism for saying that and cherry-picking polls that he liked.Now Democrats are operating as if it really doesn’t matter. I think they have an agenda that they want to get done and they are probably expecting to lose pretty badly in 2022. Yet, they are pushing ahead. Normally, this would have killed the president’s agenda and he would be a lame duck but Republicans, specifically in the Senate, are not operating under that assumption either. They are just rolling over on things that their base does not want. It is really an interesting phenomenon right now.

Platform: For sure! What is interesting you mentioned a comparison to Trump, and I had a moment like that with Biden’s election interference comments that questioned the [upcoming midterm] election’s legitimacy. I thought, “Come on, dude. Why- are you trying to lamely rip off of Trump? Because you are not going to be as cool as him."

Rich Baris: Yeah, and in 2016, they said that Donald Trump stole the election. Now, in ’22 if you make a comment like that it is treason. As they are telling you it is treason, the president can trot out and preemptively say that 2022 is going to be illegitimate because they didn’t get their federal takeover of elections. The media lets them get away with this. There is no holding them accountable. Politicians have always been hypocritical, but this is a whole new level. They do it with impunity because they are not going to be called out. Glenn Kessler from The Washington Post is not going to run a fact check on Joe Biden. He didn’t do it during the campaign, he is not going to do it now. That is the environment we are in, but people see it.

Platform: You also see that in terms of the ratings and just how bad the ratings are for CNN and MSNBC. Now, going to the midterms, midterms are traditionally a nightmare for presidents. What level of Republican success could be an unusually bad showing for Biden?

Rich Baris: This is another great question because in 2018 I argued that wasn’t a wave at all. The number of seats Democrats won was approximately 40 seats in the House and that is a roughly average performance for a first term incumbent president. In the Senate, they actually performed as poorly for a challenging party since JFK. Had McSally hung on against Sinema in Arizona and she kept that seat, you would have needed to go back to FDR to find such a poor performance for a challenging party during a first term incumbent midterm. At the state level, state legislatures and governorships, we just didn’t see this kind of blue wave go around the country. It was a splash; it wasn’t a wave. My traditional definition of a wave is basically across the board. Both chambers are at least impacted whether they take control of them or not. In 2010, for instance, Republicans did not take the Senate, but they still won enough seats where they obviously had a good night. It was all the way from the top of the ballot down to the bottom of the ballot. That is a wave. New Jersey [in 2021] almost was a wave. Virginia was a wave in 2021. So, Republicans are going to have to perform across the board in order for them to be able to call it the red wave they expect to have. I would say this too that the House is a little bit different for two reasons. Democrats are doing very well in redistricting. Of course, they [Republicans] have to take control of the House but by what seat margin?A lot of people are thinking 60 seats and that it going to be like 2010 which it could be, but the Democrats were overextended in 2010 as they had won seats, they never should have won so it was just a reversion to the mean. 60 seats [for the Republicans] at this point I think it is a little bit wishful thinking but if they did a 30 to 40 seat swing in the House it would give them a very solid majority. In the Senate, they have got to take Arizona- they have to take states like that. For New Hampshire it depends on the candidate, but in Nevada, the Republican is pulling ahead. In Georgia, Walker should absolutely beat Raphael Warnock. They really should never have lost the seat to begin with. Kelly Loeffler should have won it. I always said in the [January] 2021 run offs in Georgia, Democrats didn’t win them, Republicans lost them by not voting. It is really that simple, they were missing at least 250,000 voters and that was because the base was very angry at their lack of defense of the president. We polled it twice and both they said, “You know what? This time Republicans have to feel the pain. They have to understand there are consequences for not defending us.” There were just too many people in central Georgia and in the southern shore area that said they were going to do that. Some people like David Purdue even underperformed Donald Trump in the Atlanta metro area. Republicans absolutely could have won them. Herschel Walker should beat Raphael Warnock pretty easily.So, we would have to see that. Democrats did make some gains at the state level, but Republicans basically have to take back some governorships from Democrats that they won in ’18. They did have a goodnight with some governorships. For Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, I would argue that Republicans have a fairly weak candidate for governor there against a decent candidate who gains traction she should lose. Wisconsin, whether it is Kleefisch or whoever gets the nod in the Republican side, is getting more and more Republican every year. Pennsylvania [is going to go] down to the wire. If they almost took New Jersey’s governor then rest assured that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are very winnable. If they can win back some of these blue wall states that Trump broke, and that Biden allegedly hung on to, that is a wave. In the end, it is important to look at the races for governors as well going into the congressional and presidential election. We saw the important role governors can play before 2020 because after they had won in ’18, they had the power to change election laws unilaterally (and now we know the courts are telling them that they did not have the power to do that in all three Rust Belt states, but the fact is it is too late as the governors did it and it worked). The party that holds the key governor mansions will go into my consideration when we decide how good of a night, the Republicans in the end, do have.

Platform: That is an interesting point. Going back to your point about Arizona, Arizona is a state that is trending bluer in recent years especially with the large Latino population there. So, it is not such an obvious thing as it used to be that McSally would be able to keep that seat. There is a reason why Kyrsten Sinema is acting like such a Republican lately and has made herself a target of the Progressive Left. Regarding New Jersey, I think New Jersey is trending more and more Right. You have this Haredi population that is growing and growing, and 90 percent of those people vote for Trump. The reason why Murphy won this time is because he has good relations with them. You have Lakewood, Teaneck, and Passaic- with huge Jewish communities. Those communities will offset the Progressive vote from some of the heavily blue areas such as Paterson, Trenton, and Newark. If the Democrats have to fight for their political life in New Jersey, they will get very nervous, since it is not a small state and has 14 electoral votes.

Rich Baris: Yeah, I absolutely see that point of view. It also could be compounded - and I know the machine politics there that halt it a little bit- but in this last election that we saw you had Sweeney go down because he neglected this swing with Hispanic men. Especially when you go further south where Sweeney lost, Gloucester had voted for Trump by a few points. In Gloucester you had Cumberland and Salem and those can trend Right, and we knew they were. That one part of Gloucester where there is a heavily Hispanic population and there is also an African American population, this working-class movement was happening under Sweeney’s feet, and no one was paying attention to it. Republicans could never win it, but Trump did twice. And nobody noticed it because who looks at state district levels, right? But Trump carried it by, I think, one and a half against Hillary and I think about three against Biden. So, it was going and coupled with- you were talking with the dynamic of the Jewish vote and that growing community- that Hispanic male working vote there could be definitely problems for Democrats there especially in local elections. That is really one of the big things. This shift that we are seeing with the Hispanic working male is real and it started under Trump but now it’s really progressed because Biden has had a year to tell them why they voted for him, but they think they made a mistake. So now they are furious.In California, when we had the recall, Republicans spent all their money on Orange County and San Diego because that is where they think their white Republican vote is. Meanwhile, they all voted no [to the recall]. It was the Central Valley- Madera, Merced, Fresno- which is highly populated with Hispanic workers that voted yes to everybody’s surprise except for me because we were polling it for a client. We knew they were going to vote yes. White men voted 52-48 yes while Hispanic men voted 53-47 yes- they were the closest to the strongest vote for that movement and nobody paid attention to them. Republicans have got to wake up and see that opportunity because they just want someone to represent them.

Platform: Absolutely and we don’t think of the Latino vote as something where we don’t have much chance of making inroads but talking about a community that has very traditional values- values of family and religious values- is something they really need to tap into. Going back to the House of Representatives, just to make a comment- people forgot that 90 to 95 percent of their representatives retain their seats and most of those seats won’t flip or be expected to flip. So that is something people have to build into their expectations when they are hoping for some sort of wave. Going back to the flipping of the blue states, this is a very important thing for Republicans particularly when you have Arizona trending Left and you have Georgia trending Left [with its 16 electoral votes] and if you have Texas [with 38 electoral votes] go you real trouble as it become more purple lately. These are not shoo-ins like Alabama or Montana, Texas is a very impactful state for Republicans with California being worth 55 electoral votes.

Rich Baris: Yeah, Texas would be checkmate in the electoral college, absolutely.

Platform: Yeah, the only thing the Republicans can do to offset that is win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan theoretically while being stable in Georgia and Arizona. But you are pushing into dangerous territory when you lose Texas.

Rich Baris: Democrats have just been much better at looking at the map and saying, “You know what, maybe we lost this state by ten to twelve points this year but four, eight, or twelve years from now maybe we can compete there, and they put the work and money in." Republicans don’t look at a place like Maine for instance or even Connecticut or New Jersey, as you said they didn’t give Jack Ciattarelli any help whatsoever and the man lost by three points. If the Republican Governor’s Association gave him a little bit of resources to help push him over the edge, he might have won that. I actually do think he would have. He ran with nothing and with no help. Everyone was looking at Virginia. Virginia is another one of those states that has been trending blue and we did see some swing back in Virginia. Could a Republican win it at the presidential level? I don’t think we should make that jump yet. Youngkin won it in a close election. Bob McDonnell won it by double digits [in 2009] and he carried Fairfax County, yet Mitt Romney could not carry it in 2012. They just don’t have the ambition that Democrats have when they look at the electoral college. They don’t say, “You know what, we can’t win this state now but maybe we can.” They are always playing defensively.

Platform: Agreed. Progressives push the envelope and it seems the dynamics between the two parties are often conservatives reacting outraged at something the Progressives do or say. In a sort of way, it is a good strategy because Progressives just keep pushing that envelope until people go, “What?!”.

Rich Baris: But even then, they are still directing the message when they [Progressives] do that and the Republicans are still reacting. They are being proactive. The number one rule in politics is if you are playing defense you are losing. So, they are constantly on offense. Some Republicans know that like Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. The guy is on offense every day, he is going to win reelection in a landslide- I don’t care what some other pollster comes out with. We have been very good in Florida for many years now and have a much better track record than most. That race is not close at all. DeSantis is going to win it handily and it will be called in 20 to 30 minutes that is how much he is ahead right now. He is teaching Republicans in many ways, along with Donald Trump, where there is a lot of negative associations with him, but the reason why people respect and love him is because he always fought, never backtracked, and he consistently tried to honor his political promises. He wouldn’t stab you as a voter in the back, there is no other way to put it. While so many Republican presidents, senators, and Congressmen have done that to their base for years and it doesn’t work out for the base. Then you have the kingmakers who go with McCain or Romney saying that they are the strongest candidate just to watch these guys get creamed. Eventually the Republicans just toned it out and anyone who defends them like DeSantis is or Trump did is going to get the love. You can’t blame them. I don’t understand why some pundits can’t grasp this relationship. Maybe because they don’t see since they aren’t really so-called Republicans in the sense that a Republican in Pennsylvania or Florida would call themselves a Republican. They are not the same. Maybe they don’t see the betrayal because those pundits are much further to the Left than the average base voter and Kevin McCarthy doesn’t represent in the House the average base Republican voter. So other pundits who are DC-based or New York based, they don’t understand it because they can’t see that.

Platform: Moving to the Democratic races in Virginia and New Jersey, how much of the losses can be seen as a referendum on Biden as opposed to it being a pushback against Progressive issues at large like Critical Race Theory and the candidates themselves?

Rich Baris: As in the case in politics at any one time, it is never one explanation. Without a doubt Glenn Youngkin did an amazing job keeping the conversation on education and local issues. Speaking of Tip O’Neill, he said that all politics are local. That is the way things should be and is typically- especially true of a gubernatorial election. The media tried to push Youngkin to a national stage- tying him to Trump but he didn’t let it happen. He wasn’t anti-Trump at all. I think he is a very good case study for other Republican candidates on how you can stay focused on the message, be proactive, drive the conversation, and McAuliffe, Democrats, Joe Biden, and the rest of them wanted the election to be about Medicaid expansion, Donald Trump, and Covid. That didn’t happen. Voters, especially within the last four weeks [of the election], shifted dramatically into Glenn Youngkin’s conversation, they wanted to talk about inflation, Critical Race Theory, and the economy and jobs in general.So, I think you have this fired up base that is really scared of Wokism and probably with good reason and they will vote based on those issues. You have the overall general public that is swingable and persuadable, and they were looking at things like groceries and the cost of inflation at the grocery store and then you get a tax levied on you every time you buy groceries. It is a way to lose people in Chesterfield and in Loudoun County who aren’t particularly partisan as they vote based on their pocketbook or whatever they saw at the time. They did not view this as a referendum on Donald Trump since he wasn’t there anymore. They viewed it as Democratic policies aren’t doing very well whether at the state level or at the national level and we need a change and Glenn Youngkin doesn’t scare me. We talk about Critical Race Theory, in our polling we called it the revenge of the fathers, we saw this huge margin with fathers with school-aged children and it wasn’t always there until that story about Loudon County and the sexual assault in the gender-neutral bathroom became a big story. As knowledge of that story rose, the margin among those fathers widened. You can track it side by side. So, there was an element to that as well that people aren’t talking about. There are people who think they hide it from them and never got their approval or consent to impose those policies and then G-d forbid you go and make your voice heard at a school board meeting and you’re labelled like a terrorist to be arrested and thrown out like that poor father who had his child assaulted.You put all of it together and it resulted in roughly a 12-point average swing statewide and by the way I think Virginia is important with that because that is the average swing that we are seeing across the border leading up to the election. Now in some places like Georgia and elsewhere, it is actually getting even worse. So, for a while we were looking at a 12-point margin, but it was more like New Jersey’s 16-point swing away from Democrats and we were looking at it and thinking anything within this range is dangerous for Democrats. That again has worsened as the picture has gotten even worse for Democrats since that election. Now we are looking at Biden’s approval ratings in Georgia, he is 39 nationally but he is about 34 percent in Georgia. If you are 34 percent your Senator is going to lose. He is going to lose. We polled it and had Warnock down to Walker by 4 and now we saw the Atlanta Journal Constitution which is one of the most Democratic leaning and favoring polls out there and even they have Walker ahead now. That is what happens when a president drags you down and he does because there is that segment of the population, whether it is Virginia or Georgia, that does view their vote as a referendum on the president. This is something the Democrats are going to have to deal with as all first term incumbent midterms have to.

Platform: Just to strengthen what you are saying in terms of the impact that McAuliffe’s talking about Trump had, Youngkin was very good because not only did he stay on message with local issues, but he constantly said that this wasn’t a referendum on Trump. He distanced himself from Trump and was careful to do so by saying, “I am the one who is running for governor of Virginia and not Trump”. Going back to McAuliffe, he had that infamous comment that he made that it is none of parent’s business what we teach in your schools. That is really not a good move.

Rich Baris: We polled that statement and asked if you agree or disagreed with it. It did very poorly as you can imagine and one of the ads that Youngkin ran that was probably the most persuasive to the real middle was that ad where he just cut how many times McAuliffe said Trump everywhere he went, and people really responded to that. It was at that point a level of frustration where the voter went, “look, I voted for you before, but I am not going to vote for you this time because this is not the kind of campaign, I was hoping you’d run. Youngkin seems reasonable and I am going with him.” McAuliffe lost those Northam, Obama, and Biden voters to Youngkin because he ran an unserious campaign.

Platform: Going to the next question, what grade would you give the first year of the Biden presidency?

Rich Baris: I’d give him a flat-out F because he won arguably on an impossible campaign promise. You can dumb it down to him promising not to shut down the economy but the virus. That is what the persuadable voters really hinged their vote on with him and that was never a really plausible promise to make. You can’t keep that. You don’t know whether that is the case or not. As it became clear with Delta and all these other variants that the vaccine was not going to be Joe Biden’s saving grace, that they are not going to let people go back to normal, and that this wasn’t want they were sold then he started to plummet. Afghanistan was the icing on the cake. A lot of people try to point out Afghanistan as the moment when Biden began to fall. It’s not. Covid took Biden down and that Afghanistan was the final death knell that pushed him into the 30s. Covid took him into the low 40s in our polling and Afghanistan gave it an extra little push because the images of leaving all the people behind, the weapons behind, and literally he is making promises on Friday that by Monday don’t come true. Between Afghanistan, his handling of Covid, and then spending as much money as he did against the will of the American people during a time when we are facing real dangers of inflation is not only tune deaf but dangerous. We polled a lot of sentiment about shortages and inflation this month and I never thought in the United States of America that I would ever get the numbers that I did on this issue. 80% of the country tells you that they are seeing increases for meat and poultry with more than a majority say these are significant increases. 70 plus percent say there are shortages in meat and poultry, fruit and vegetables, canned goods, bread, and eggs. There is no way to spin that.

Platform: Which political mistake do you think would be the most impactful on his presidency? If you had said Afghanistan, then I would have said that this is unusual given that foreign policy issues have less priority for American voters than economic issues.

Rich Baris: I would agree with that. I really think Afghanistan was secondary. Now, we ask about Ukraine, and it was broad consensus that “no, I don’t support military actions against Russia in defense of Ukraine. Hello, we have domestic problems here. We can’t go spending money that we don’t have in Eastern Europe because inflation is at a danger of running wild at home.” So, really they always pivot back to those core economic issues that could hurt someone like Donald Trump who was effectively perceived as comfortable in the economic arena when he was president. So, they didn’t give this thought that they should have. They assumed that the economy would keep going on autopilot and that Donald Trump had gotten that squared away and it would be alright as you could not possibly do that much damage in a year. There are millions upon millions of people telling us now that they made a mistake. But it is based on economic concerns above all, and you have all those other secondary issues whether it is foreign policy or the new culture wars over transgender issues, CRT, or whatever it might be. They are there and there are forefront of people’s mind and so is election reform by the way. They do not want a federal takeover of elections and want much stricter voter verification procedures than anything we have seen so far. Those secondary issues are there, and you win elections on the margins so anytime you can rack in secondary issues that voters favor you that is great. Right now, though we are really down to the nuts and bolts which is my wallet six months from is not going to be able to take the price of goods. One voter told us in our Fall poll, when we started to see this take shape, that, “if I can find it, I can’t afford it. If I can afford it, I can’t find it.” That stuck with me because there were so many different people telling us in different ways, but that particular voter put it crystal clear and encapsulated the concern that others tried to rely to us. That is nuts and bolts, now we don’t have the luxury of being concerned with these 3rd rail issues that Democrats will try to bring up and try to distract with them as this is what they always do every 2, 4, and 6 years. But this time it won’t work, not unless something dramatically improves with the economy and inflation. I don’t see that or how it could, but we will see. A year- or nine months now- can be a long time.

Platform: Going to the last question, if you were Biden which Republican candidate would be the best threat for you if they win in the primaries? Who are you the most afraid of?

Rich Baris: Right now, I know there is this big groundswell among certain people for Ron DeSantis and people get mad when we put out our polls and ask why are we only polling Trump and why don’t you add DeSantis in the mix. The fact of the matter is we don’t do it for two reasons: (1) Ron DeSantis has said unequivocally that he will not run if Trump runs again, and we all know Donald Trump if he does run is going to replace Mike Pence with DeSantis on the ticket. (2) DeSantis’s name recognition is simply not high enough yet so that if we did put him up against Joe Biden, DeSantis would be down because his name recognition is not what Donald Trump’s is. That being said it doesn’t mean that you can’t build on that. A second term governor by that time if he does run in the primary and Trump doesn’t run, I think he is very dangerous to Joe Biden, especially if he can reach the working class the way that Donald Trump did. Here is the thing that Donald Trump has that nobody else has right now. Some of it comes from name recognition but it is really this impression that he is not a politician. When we see this disparity between Trump and Republicans on the generic ballot among Hispanic men for instance, we ask them why they refuse to vote Republican or just maybe they are undecided right now and it is because they view Donald Trump as that outsider guy, and we like that, and we don’t mind the crass anymore. What they cared about was the economic policy and the fact that they like that he sticks it to the man. Maybe Ron DeSantis can get to that level and have that kind of gravitas, but he is just not there yet.Those three Mid-Western states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are so important. If Donald Trump runs again, you have states like Ohio and Iowa that are not even competitive, and Trump will win them in a blowout. Ron DeSantis probably takes Florida off the table, but the question remains whether he can win those Obama-Trump Rust Belt voters. Some of them went back to Biden, I think it is at least fair to argue that Trump lost some of them, but he also added 10 million votes, which no president has done and lost in history. That is something a bit odd, but I’ll leave it for another day.Right now, Donald Trump is the strongest candidate. I know some people don’t want to hear that, but it is the truth. When we look at our polling, we have to go back to many years in history to find a Republican candidate who led who led their Democratic opponent as much as Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden by such a large amount nationally and so consistently in our polling. Or in any polling! Harvard-Harris just had Trump up by six over Biden. That just doesn’t happen. Republicans don’t win popular vote margins by six points. It is not the 1980 or ’84 electorate anymore. George W. Bush was lucky to barely win the popular vote in 2004 and he didn’t win it in 2000. As time goes on because disproportionate populations in big blue states, they are going to sway that popular vote. It is really going to come down to the electoral college. If Trump wins in a popular vote, then a year ago I would have told you that was impossible. I really never did believe it. When we would poll, we would look at Republicans to be within two points- maybe three points- and that is striking distance in the electoral college. The fact that Trump has got these four-, six-, and eight-point leads is honestly stunning. I really can’t understate it enough because I have been reading other commentary from other people like Ann Coulter the other day made a ruckus by saying, “the polls are clear, Trump is done! He is gone.” That is ridiculous. Even George Herbert Walker Bush who beat Michael Dukakis with over 400 electoral votes still trailed Michael Dukakis for the majority of that election season. He only took the lead in the late summer and the early fall because he beat him on the perception that Dukakis was weak on crime among other things and painted him as too far to the Left. He only did this at the last minute, and no Republican has led consistently like this since maybe Richard Nixon in his reelection bid. It is really worth point that out. I think a Trump-DeSantis ticket at this point looks unbeatable. We have polled Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren- nobody can touch him. He is way ahead.

* The email will not be published on the website.