UNC researcher has good news for Democrats

Democrats worry that they’ll nominate a presidential candidate who’s too liberal to win a general election, but liberal policies are what the majority of Americans want now.

That’s the intriguing finding of an analysis by UNC professor emeritus James Stimson, a leading figure in American public opinion research. In 1989, Stimson created a statistical interpretation of the nation’s views on such government policies as taxation, government spending and environmental regulation by using data from all available national and academic surveys. The measure, called Public Policy Mood, is updated every two years.

In announcing his most recent analysis, Stimson wrote: “The annual estimate for 2018 is the most liberal ever recorded in the 67-year history of Mood, just slightly higher than the previous high point of 1961.”

In an interview last week, Stimson, a retired professor of political science who lives in Chapel Hill, said the liberal shift resembles the public mood on the cusp of the 1960s, “That’s where the electorate is. It’s like the time of Kennedy and Johnson. They are going to respond more warmly to policies from the left.”

Indeed the shift is so strong that Stimson said that if the national election were held today, Democrats would win the presidency and both houses of Congress. However, the positive sentiment for Democrats, he said, could be offset somewhat by the quality of candidates and ingrained voting patterns in red states.

Nonetheless, the Mood measurement has been remarkably accurate in presidential and congressional elections. It indicated the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 as the analytical instrument showed the most conservative mood since public attitudes were first consistently measured in 1952. It revealed a conservative turn in 2016 as voters reacted to eight years of liberal policy under President Obama, though Stimson said he was still surprised by Donald Trump’s victory.

A key finding of the analysis is that public opinion tends to move in the opposite direction of a president’s push. In that way, public opinion regulates the swings in political direction, pulling back as policy moves too far in a liberal or conservative direction. The pattern indicates that the safest place for office holders who want to remain in office is somewhere in the middle.

Stimson, the author of the award-winning books “Tides of Consent“ and “Ideology in America,” said, “Moderation is always the winning strategy in politics because both parties are more extreme than the voters. That’s always true. The first first person who has come along who acts like he doesn’t believe it is Donald Trump.”

The president’s plan to seek re-election by firing up his base rather than reaching out seems doomed, the professor said.

“It’s hard to see having a base below 40 percent and saying I’m going to ride that to victory,” he said. “Turnout matters, but you are still short of a majority.”

Trump is pushing so hard to the right that he’s creating a powerful counter-trend to the left. Stimson said, “FDR would do fine in the current environment.”

But that doesn’t mean the most liberal Democratic candidate will fare best in 2020.

This doesn’t have much purchase on which Democrats should be leading. All the Democrats are to the left of the center,” he said. “That the mood is liberal is generally helpful to Democrats without discriminating among them.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com