Consider the issue of abortion. It’s well known that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in November will benefit Democrats because people who care deeply about abortion rights are now more likely to vote. But there is a sizeable group of voters who are not particularly focused on abortion – and they are guided not so much by their own views on the Dobbs decision as by the views of their party.
You might be thinking: hey, this is about ideology, not partisanship. It’s about being Liberal or Conservative, not about being Democrat or Republican. But parties organize public opinion so much, even among those with looser political affiliations, that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean, in most cases, just “things Democrats like” and “things Republicans like.”
There is a phenomenon in political science called “thermostatic” public opinion, in which political preferences become more liberal when a Republican is president and more conservative when a Democrat is. This happens even with successful presidents who are gifted speakers; Public opinion became more liberal during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and more conservative during Barack Obama’s presidency.
But normal thermostatic shifts in public opinion do not occur during Joe Biden’s presidency. Instead, voters are becoming more liberal. When people are asked whether the government is “doing too much” or “should be doing more,” a majority say it should be doing more, according to a recent Fox News poll. (This positive sentiment for more government, it should be noted, began during Donald Trump’s presidency when it was considered a normal thermostatic response.)
Some political scientists have speculated that the reason for the postponement is that the most notable policy change that year was the Dobbs decision, Roe v. to overthrow Wade, along with legislation being passed in many states to restrict abortion. People are more responsive to the political trend—toward Republican goals—than to who is president.(1)
This adds another complication: isn’t what is happening here an extension of government – an extension of its legal and regulatory authority? One might think the thermostatic response would be to support a government that does less. But that’s not it.
A better explanation comes from understanding how parties influence people’s views of politics. People don’t see Dobbs as a shift toward larger, more active government. Instead, they tend to see it as a pro-Republican political move. And so they move against Republican positions and ideas — including, as the Fox polls show, what they accept as a Republican position on appropriate government size.
In other words, when people perceive Republicans as “victorious,” they tend to view ideas they associate with Democrats more positively, and vice versa. This is true even if the victories in question have nothing to do with those ideas.
Voters may feel they are making an ideological judgment and will not engage in partisan arguments. What is overlooked is how much the parties define ideology. The political parties determine which topics or developments are considered “conservative” or “liberal”.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with parties doing this or with people choosing how to vote or what to tell a pollster based on which party they prefer. People are busy and not everyone has a clear opinion on every topic. Parties are a useful proxy. They enable quick interim political decisions. Without them, a large-scale democracy is unlikely to function.
On those rare issues on which people have strong personal opinions (for some it might be abortion, for others marginal tax rates) different patterns may prevail. Their views could lead them to change parties – and then take on many other positions of their new party. Or maybe they stay in their party but try to make it more consistent with their views.
More often than not, however, it is the party – not the issue or the candidate – that drives public opinion.
(1) There is another possible explanation: Maybe people just like Biden and Congressional Democrat politics, and that makes them more liberal. It’s possible – but doesn’t explain why Biden himself was so unpopular.
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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