How Dems & GOP Surveyed Members After Trump Inauguration by Allison Pingley
The 2016 U.S. presidential election and its results caused friction within both political parties. The Republican Party is faced with trying to unite its party members and supporters – some of who did not support Donald Trump for president – while the Democratic Party is trying to recover from its losses before the 2018 midterm elections. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, both parties sent out surveys to their likely supporters.
In examining the two surveys– both mailed within a few days of each other – it was evident that the parties were taking very different approaches to gauging public sentiment. While both surveys have their flaws – and member surveys are not likely to be conducted in as scientific of a manner as other polls – the survey distributed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sought information on voters’ issue priorities and positions while the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) survey appeared to want confirmation of support for the policy priorities and positions it had already taken.
The DNC survey started by asking respondents about their personal domestic and foreign policy issue priorities. For each policy type, respondents were given nine choices of issues and there was also a space under domestic policies to write in a different issue not mentioned. The survey then asked about the Republican agenda, specifically asking about concerns over Trump’s goals for his first 100 days in office and about Trump personally. Finally, the survey asked what the goals of Democrats in Congress should be and about Democratic election strategy – asking respondents to reflect on the 2016 election and make suggestions for the 2018 mid-term elections. There was a space at the bottom for respondents to write in any additional information they wanted the DNC to know.
Some of the questions were certainly not unbiased. For example, one question asked, “Which aspects of the Trump presidency do you find most disturbing?” Respondents were instructed to choose four aspects from answer choices including: “his erratic temperament and judgment,” “his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” “his disregard of the U.S. Constitution,” and “his verbal and physical assaults on women”. However, there was an answer choice that stated: “I don’t find a Trump presidency disturbing”.
The RNC survey gave no such answer choices. Instead of asking generally about issue priorities and positions, its questions aimed at specific policy positions of Trump regarding jobs and the economy, taxes, health care, immigration and border security, energy, and national security.
The questions were worded in very loaded ways and respondents were not given the choice to disagree. For example, one question regarding the economy said, “Democrats in recent years have seriously impeded America’s economic growth by forcing businesses to deal with excessive and costly government regulations designed to keep ‘climate change’ in check. Do you feel ‘climate change’ is as serious a threat as many people make it out to be?” The answer choices were yes, no, and no opinion. By wording the question in such a way, climate change is being associated with the Democratic Party, therefore making it less likely that a Republican answering the survey would want to put himself/herself in the same category as a Democrat.
Another example of a loaded question is this question listed under “general issues.” It stated: “How worried are you that President Trump will find it difficult to advance his agenda with the Democrats, the radical left mainstream media and other powerful forces working overtime to derail his progress every step of the way?” The answer choices were: very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried, or unsure. Once again, the wording of the question and the information contained in it encourages respondents to answer a certain way. If respondents are being primed to give certain answers, then are the results of the survey truly valid? In other words, had the questions been asked in a more open, impartial manner, would the results be the same?
Based on an analysis of the two surveys, it is apparent that the DNC was trying to identify the issue priorities and positions of its likely supporters, whereas the RNC was simply trying to show support for issue priorities and positions it had already chosen. If Republican supporters truly agree with those priorities and positions, then there is no problem; however, what if they do not? What if Republican supporters would prefer other issues to be prioritized or alternative policies to be considered? If that is the case, the Republican Party could face severe challenges leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections. If the goal of party surveys is to gauge supporter sentiment then it seems like a party would rather discover that sentiment now than at the voting booth.
Allison Pingley is Associate Professor of Political Science at The University of South Carolina Upstate.