The president and the press love to cite national polls as the authority on how Americans see the issues. How many times have you heard about the “90 percent of Americans” who support background checks or the “overwhelming majority” who support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?
But, for members of Congress, national polls matter very little. What matters is how that issue plays at home. Americans say they want their legislators to look out for the good of the country, but in reality they reward members of Congress who put the values of their district or state above all else. A recent study by Loyola University of Chicago’s David Doherty highlighted this week by Pew’s Rich Morin found that “ respondents rated a member of Congress far more favorably if the lawmaker put the interests of his or her district or state over those of the country as a whole.” While many Americans – especially Hollywood movie makers – are attracted to the story of the legislator who takes a “noble” vote for conscience and/or country, political science tells us that we “ prefer[erred] a U.S representative or senator who voted consistent with his constituency to one who put the nation’s priorities first.”
More important, a national poll frames an issue even-handedly and with unbiased, antiseptic language. That’s not the way that hot button issues are discussed by regular people or framed by the increasingly polarized social media. People don’t know what the Affordable Care Act is, but they sure as heck have heard of “Obamacare.” Even the pro-Obama group Organizing for Action (OFA) used the slang term in their own pro-health care ads they began running this week.
While the White House and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are gearing up for another fight on guns, just re-running the national poll defense isn’t going to change the outcome of the debate. The issue is not about whether voters support the concept of background checks. They do. The issue is whether they trust this president on the issue. And many, especially those in deep red states don’t. To understand how the issue looks to voters in places like West Virginia - or Arkansas or Alaska - take a look at how the NRA framed their recent ad attacking Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin, of course, was the co-sponsor, along with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, of the compromise background check law that went down to defeat earlier this spring.
The NRA’s criticism focused less on Manchin’s support for restricting gun rights than it did on his partners in the fight - President Obama and Bloomberg. The ad asks viewers in the Mountain state to call Manchin and tell him to “reject the Obama-Bloomberg gun control agenda.”
Embattled red state Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, who voted against Manchin-Toomey’s background check bill, ran his first re-election ad on guns. In the ad, the Arkansas Senator cited Bloomberg, New York, and Obama more than the he mentioned Second Amendment. Pryor only had praise for the Second Amendment.
Republicans hoping to entice wary conservatives to support immigration reform are using dislike of Obama to make their case as well. A recent ad by the GOP SuperPAC American Crossroads urges Republicans in Congress to reform immigration policy as a way to help the economy and keep bad guys from coming over the border. But, the kicker is an image of Marine One landing while the ad’s narrator warns “if they [Congress] won’t act, guess who’s the only one who gets to decide?” In other words, you may not like the concept of immigration reform, but you like President Obama even less.
Talk to folks close to the House these days and you hear pessimism about the likelihood of an immigration bill passing there. There is simply too much distance between concept and reality. The concept of winning over Hispanic voters in the next election (the argument made by national Republicans) is not as powerful as the reality that this vote could come back to haunt them in their home districts. Those interested in moving House GOPers to “yes” on immigration should invest less in in national polls and cable TV buys and invest instead in polling in the places that really matter to these members – their own backyards.