This past week on Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to Democratic Pollster of the Year Anna Greenberg, of the Democratic-aligned firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, about social media's influence on public opinion and the important issues and political dynamics at play in the 2014 midterms.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
1. Public opinion doesn't only mean phone surveys anymore; social media qualifies, too. Greenberg drew an analogy between the expression of political opinions on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook today and the forwarding of emails from MoveOn.org to friends in the mid-2000s. The key difference: The former "is much more in the public's face." And those public expressions of opinion could provide a useful way to gauge the public pulse on an issue. In 2012, social media lit up when former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said in a debate with Elizabeth Warren (D) that he would want more Antonin Scalias on the Supreme Court — "a huge signal to people that he wasn't necessarily an independent thinker, but was more of a traditional Republican." But there are some caveats and challenges. It's tough to know whether public opinion on Twitter is spontaneous or the byproduct of a coordinated campaign. It's also difficult to tease out the factors that make a person more likely to be influenced by or use social media to begin with. While the generation gap may first come to mind, other issues such as a person's preferred news medium, economic class, and educational attainment come into play to a significant degree. "I think the challenge for pollster alike me who think social media is a form of public opinion is to sort out, when is it influential and when is it sort of just noise?"
2. Republicans are catching up with Democrats on their use of digital tools like social media. And one area where that holds particularly true is the conversation on ObamaCare. Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and conservative activists have dominated online discussions about the Affordable Care Act. "There isn't anything equivalent on the Democratic side," Greenberg said. That being said, Democrats have historically had the advantage at using online tools like social media to organize politically, in part because they helped write the book on it — Exhibit A being the Obama presidential campaigns. "I think overall that Democrats have been pioneers in all of this but that Republicans seem to be catching up," she said.
3. President Obama is gaining ownership of the economy, which could hurt Democrats in November. For the longest time, most Americans blamed President George W. Bush for the country's economic struggles. Even exit polling from the 2012 presidential election, more than four years after the financial crisis's onset, showed that a majority of voters blamed Bush, not Obama, for the still-struggling economy. "People still sort of viewed the Bush presidency as having handed him a huge set of economic problems that he was working on trying to solve," Greenberg said. As time has gone on, though, and Obama has been in office longer, he has been taking more and more ownership of the economy in the eyes of Americans. "Inevitably if you're kind of the national spokesperson leader of your party ... I think that hurts all Democrats." The economy likely will be more important in November than ObamaCare will be, Greenberg said.
4. The idea that women will automatically vote for women doesn't add up. A recent article in The Daily Beast raised the question of why women don't vote for women. Greenberg noted that it's true that women won't automatically pull the lever for a woman. The idea that women vote for women is sort of like saying men vote for men, she said. Women are somewhat more likely to vote for a woman in an election that features one, but "correlation is not causation, and what causes that relationship is partisanship." Not only are women more Democratic than other Americans, but women running for election are more often Democratic. Still, despite more women getting elected to office nowadays, men continue to outnumber women in that department, particularly in Congress. It's mostly a supply-side issue, she argued. "The reason why there aren't there are such disparities in representation is because of the pipeline, that many fewer women run than men," Greenberg said.
5. The LGBT rights cause isn't futile in conservative states. Even though polling regularly shows that a majority of Americans now support the right of a same-sex couple to marry, there are some states — particularly in the Deep South — where public support still lags behind the national average. But that doesn't mean that the LGBT agenda is dead in those states: "There are all kinds of issues around discrimination in housing and the workplace." Many states still lack legislation barring this form of discrimination against LGBT people. Polling, Greenberg said, shows that such a measure garners 60 percent to 70 percent support, even in conservative states: "So there's a lot outside of the marriage question, especially in states that are more conservative, where you can make some significant gains, and it's just a matter of having champions in those states."
Listen to the whole conversation here: