Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
How useful are the Biden-Trump polls right now?

How useful are the Biden-Trump polls right now?

Change Research pollster Stephen Clermont discusses the presidential race and what can be learned from public opinion surveys months before an election

Episode Summary

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump are facing off for the second time this year, but a number of polls have shown a surprisingly close race, despite the fact that Trump has been convicted of 34 felonies and he stands as the only president in American history to have sent an armed mob to block the certification of his electoral defeat.

How is this scenario possible? There are a lot of reasons for it, and some of them involve decisions made by Democratic leaders and donors that were made many years ago by refusing to invest in progressive advocacy media. Right wing media is now a gigantic enterprise that is capable of influencing people who don’t even watch it.

The Biden-Trump race is also taking place in a post-pandemic moment, in which many companies dramatically raised prices and have refused to lower them. It’s a reality that has affected many people, especially those with lower incomes.

What it all means is that there are millions of Americans who dislike both of the major parties’ presidential candidates and that the contest between Trump and Biden is likely to be decided by these so-called “double-haters.”

Joining me to discuss in this episode is Stephen Clermont. He is the head of polling at Change Research, a Democratic polling company.

The video of this discussion is available. The transcript of audio is below. Because of its length, some podcast apps and email programs may truncate it. Access the episode page to get the full text.

Cover photo: President Joe Biden speaks during the Department of Homeland Security twentieth anniversary ceremony at DHS Headquarters in Washington, DC. (DHS photo by Tia Dufour)

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Audio Chapters

00:00 — Introduction

02:34 — Trump's legal challenges and public perception

08:39 — Persuadable voters are real, even though they've declined in number

12:26 — Republicans and Democrats have very different political ecosystems

17:36 — Partisan media is an enormous advantage for Republicans

28:50 — Trump is doubling down on Republicans' negative campaign strategies

32:42 — Economic challenges and Biden's presidency

35:24 — Trump's past actions and public awareness

46:33 — Hispanic voters and immigration policies

50:48 — Republican primary dynamics and voter motivation

53:57 — How Republicans use "demotivation" tactics to target left-leaning Americans

Audio Transcript

The following is a machine-generated transcript of the audio that has not been proofed. It is provided for convenience purposes only.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: So the election, I think there's a lot of stuff going on, and in the news cycle, the thing that happened most recently is the felony conviction of Donald Trump on 34 counts of falsifying documents in the furtherance of, well, basically campaign finance violations in New York City.

And you guys did a poll recently that asked about that to a number of [00:03:00] respondents. So, why don't you walk us through the findings and then we can talk about what your take on, on them is.

STEPHEN CLERMONT: Sure. Well, we recently completed a national survey. We actually started it the day after Trump was convicted of 34 felonies.

I should, I think calling him Trump is, I think it'd be a little more formal and respectful. The former president and likely Republican nominee is. convicted of 34 felony charges, which is not something that happens every election cycle. So as part of to just to get a read on what we we found and what people's responses to this.

I think, I think it's important to level set like what polling is. And what we should expect from polling now versus what we think. And it's, it's interesting to me to see the number of polls that were, are published and how many people get excited about them. And the New York Times comes out with a [00:04:00] poll and it dominates the, the political narrative and goes to these averages.

I've always worked in polling in, for democratic companies that are helping campaigns When elections or interest groups trying to pass legislation or companies trying to understand how laws are going to react to their business and like polling really does need to actually have a purpose and a solution beyond just like, Too much of it gets reported as people want to react to it and feel a certain way, or like they expect Trump is convicted and polling should respond to that.

And I think part of that comes from how polling used to be done, like 20, 25 years ago, Trump would have been convicted on a Thursday. Newsweek would have gotten in the field on a Friday, they would have done two nights worth of interviewing and be up that weekend with results, and they normally show very [00:05:00] respondents reacted very much to events like after the Democratic Convention in 1984, Walter Mondale was trailing.

I think Ronald Reagan by a point or two and he ended up losing in 49 states. Polls were very reactive to events when people would put them in the field. And I think a lot of people put polls in the field after the conviction. And I think we're setting ourselves up for disappointment because polling, polling used to be you'd call people randomly on a phone.

And you would adjust it to a bunch of demographics on age, gender, race region. Polling never used to be weighted by party ID or past vote. So you, it would always be an effect of people who have been most, responding most to the news being ones most likely to take surveys. So you'd see these big bounces.

That's partly because polling the way it was then was not controlling the partisan composition. Because party ID is an attitudinal variable and the right [00:06:00] way to do polling is you don't wait by things that are attitudinal and then over time, we've gotten to the point now where it's just like wait party or wait to pass vote based on either interviews that you've done over time, the last 5, 000 interviews, what was the party ID and that you'd wait to that and control by party so to see, to see big movement, Towards Trump is not something they are away from Trump is towards Biden is not something I think we should be expecting from polling right now.

People's minds are very set. You're not really going to convince Republicans who are answering a survey to say that I'm a Republican. I voted for Trump. I'm voting for Joe Biden. That just doesn't happen in polling. And so the things that we have found that I believe are interesting is we asked this question. How much have you heard about his legal challenges? 86 percent a great deal. Would you say his legal challenges are justified? They're very serious allegations made against him and they [00:07:00] need to be investigated. 52 percent unjustified. He's being politically persecuted. 44 percent and normally you can see like Democrats largely believe that justified.

Republicans say that they're unjustified. Although 8 percent say that they are, and 52 percent of independents say that they're justified. So the, the thing that I'm looking at when I'm sort of analyzing these results is a majority of people believe these charges are justified. Joe Biden is not at 52 percent in polling.

So we're seeing is like majorities of this country believe these are justified. The question that we need to ask is what percentage of those are ultimately going to end up voting for Trump? People don't believe, only 15 percent believe he's going to serve time in prison. 51 percent say the charges will be overturned.

And. Or 66 percent believe that his conviction is, will be upheld, but he's not going to serve time.

SHEFFIELD: But when we

CLERMONT: ask a [00:08:00] question like thinking about the verdict, how does this make you feel about voting in the November presidential election? This is where this, these questions get tricky. So 38 percent say they're more likely to vote for Trump, 29 percent more likely to vote for Biden. 33 percent does not impact my vote. But you have to look at this is. The people that say that they're more likely to vote for Trump are already voting for him. 78 percent of Republicans say that they're more likely to vote for Trump. Because of this versus 59 percent of Democrats who say they're most likely to vote for Biden. So the thing that we're looking at we look at various measures in our polls of sort of the people who are going to make the difference.

Persuadable voters are real, even though they've declined in number

CLERMONT: Whether it's double haters, people who are unfavorable to both Trump and Biden. And there's a broader category that I refer to as movable voters, which are people who, Don't support either Trump or Biden, or in this case the way we asked it, RFK, in polling, people are undecided or say that they're going to vote for none of these [00:09:00] candidates, as well as people who somewhat disapprove of the job that Joe Biden is doing.

It's this sort of weird phenomenon that exists during the Biden presidency where everyone who approves of the job he's doing numbers that are sort of in the high thirties to low forties, overwhelmingly voting for him. People who strongly disapprove of him the job he's doing overwhelmingly voting for Trump.

And there's this, this group of somewhat disapprovers or not sure, who in the 2022 election, the Democrats ended up winning because those voters broke for Democrats down ballot.

And I've gone back and looked at the. Sort of soft disapprovers in the 2012 election. And those voters, those who somewhat disapprove of the job Obama was doing were more than two to one Romney voters. There were just more people who approved of the job that Barack Obama was doing than Joe Biden. So the movables which we've been tracking for a bunch of surveys we put out a [00:10:00] big report with this group, Future Majority, looking at them earlier this year. 24 percent say they're more likely to vote for Biden, 6 percent more likely to vote for Trump.

70 percent this does not impact my vote. And the double haters, the movables, they don't like either candidate, but they're much more intensely. Dislike Trump versus Biden, like the ratio of very unfaith to somewhat unfaith is more split with Biden. It's overwhelmingly very unfavorable towards Trump.

And we see that in a lot of the polling, the public polling that's done and the polling that we do. Trump is at the level he got in 2020. He's at 46, 47, 48 percent nationally. And in all the swing states, he has, it's very important to, to, he has not gained vote share and a lot of like polling is reported by margins.

But if I can urge everyone listening, [00:11:00] when you're looking at a poll, don't, don't look at the margin, don't look like, Oh my God, Biden's trailing by four. Biden's up one, look at where the raw percentage of where Biden is, where Trump is, and how big the undecided vote is because Trump has. Consolidated and kept his voters.

That has been true since the conviction. His very favorable with Republicans is up 10 points from the low point after the 22 election. He's consolidating his base and keeping his base with him, which has been his big project basically since the, since the January 6th attack and. Biden is a few points lower than where he needs to be, but we say when we're thinking about this election, which is, it's not going to be one on big decisive moments with verdicts or sentences or big speeches at conventions, or maybe even, it's going to be a slog of winning [00:12:00] every single day, every single news cycle Trump has very limited ways he can do that beyond his own base.

And the Biden's big challenge is just getting the people skeptical of what he has accomplished in his presidency who are hesitant about voting for him now, but voted for him before to come out and vote for him again. And that's what the campaign is essentially going to be.

Republicans and Democrats have very different political ecosystems

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and it's, and it is these polls are a good illustration of the fundamental differences of the Republican and Democratic parties' ecosystems that, the Republican, so I think, and I think the best illustration of this is that the percentage of white evangelicals in the general population has declined over the past several decades, but the percentage of white evangelicals as in the vote. In the electorate has stayed basically the same.

And so basically what they had, [00:13:00] the Republican party has been sort of squeezing more and more blood from the stone over time. And and their demographic is overwhelmingly older. In the 2020 election, I believe I think everybody in their polls showed that over 50 was the only age group that Donald Trump.

One, he lost all the other age groups. Yes, it depends. Yeah, that's my recollection. Yeah.

CLERMONT: And the evangelical, the white evangelicals are strategically located important places like Wisconsin, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee and Madison through all throughout Michigan, outside Detroit,

SHEFFIELD: Pennsylvania.

CLERMONT: Yeah, they, they do make the difference in there.

I haven't gone back to look at this and I probably should have just Percentage of white evangelicals voting for Trump now versus for George W. Bush and for John Kerry. I, my recollection is that they were in Bush. Bush was in the high 60s, low 70s, and [00:14:00] with Trump now, it's over 80%. Like, I think the way that the evangelical community has been fused to the Republican Party is much stronger now than it was then.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think so. And so, so whereas on the Democratic side so Democrats kind of have Republicans are in some ways, and people have made this observation that in a lot of ways, Republicans are a coalition of kind of the middle and the very richest, and then Democrats are a coalition of sort of the middle and the very upper middle and then the lower in terms of income.

And that's, and because of that, though, that means that a lot of people who are, we'll say a somewhat regular democratic voter, they don't really pay attention to politics very much. They don't follow it. It's not a hobby. It's not fun for them. It's annoying for them. They hate it actually.

They don't, they don't like it. And so. That's kind of the, the disadvantage that Joe Biden [00:15:00] has. I think it has an ecosystem compared to Donald Trump. But what, what do you think?

CLERMONT: I think that's right. And I think we can see, I mean, one of the most consistent poll findings you can be out there is like, you ask about the CHIPS Act or you ask about the inflation reduction act, all the things that Joe Biden has done.

Yes, people aware of that. It's like when you give them the information, they're strongly supportive of it, but they've never heard of it. It's not, it's whatever sort of building projects are being done in their communities is not being connected to the larger that this was a result of Joe Biden, the Democrats passing this legislation.

And there isn't, there's, I think this is a larger challenge for Democrats, but the recent past now and in the future is there's no coherent narrative of what democratic leadership and what democratic government means, where we can fit these different initiatives in to the larger goal and larger story of why, [00:16:00] why voting for Democrats.

Why that, why you personally benefit from that and what is the narrative we're bringing along like Donald Trump is very, the one thing he has been very good at and very consistent about since he started running in 2015 is he fully adopts the hero narrative. He's the reluctant hero being brought to help.

Save his audience, his people, the people he's talking to. And all he does in these rallies is tell stories. And he tells stories that are all very simple. Here are these villains. They're doing horrible things. They're doing horrible things to you. This is how I beat them, and this is how I'm going to beat them in the future.

And that story is being reinforced over and over and over again, and he doesn't have to tell. His audience, like what policies I'm going to bring, what, what are these things? It's the policies fit into the general [00:17:00] story of we're going to win. We're going to beat the people that you don't like. We're going to take the benefits from government, keep them from ourselves and.

And beat the other side. And that is something that's self reinforcing. And that's what we as Democrats need to be working and telling something that is just as compelling. But it's also far more humane, beneficial, and more relevant to the future of America.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and of course, Donald Trump has a lot of help in carrying his message.

Partisan media is an enormous advantage for Republicans

SHEFFIELD: So that, I, I think that. And we were talking a little bit before we recorded here that the, the political media environment. is so drastically different than it was before Donald Trump came along. That before most, almost the entirety of right wing media was it was, it was [00:18:00] Fox news, it was talk radio hosts, and both of those media sources, they took orders from the Republicans in DC, like, Rush Limbaugh, he famously had, he was invited to the White House by Bush 41.

You remember that? Way back when. And then, and then of course Roger Ailes, the, the founder of Fox News, he was a Republican political consultant and he would have calls every single day with the strategists of the, of the Republican presidential candidates. And, listen to what they said and, give his own feedback, but then he would come back and force that message onto everybody at Fox.

But in, once Trump came along, not only has that order kind of broken down in terms of they don't take orders from the congressional leaders anymore, especially. But also there are, is just a multiplicity of right wing media outlets that never existed before. There was no Newsmax TV. There was no right side broadcasting.

There was no. [00:19:00] Or, and EWTN, which most people have never heard of who are not Catholic. But if you're Catholic, you know what it is. And, and yeah, they went severely right wing. You got another one TTBN then all these far right pastors have these gigantic YouTube channels. And and then of course you got all these racist activists who are like Nick Fuentes out there, like right wing media is now a multi-billion dollar. And, and then of course, let's, can't forget Joe Rogan and, all these conspiracy people like Brett Weinstein and Ben Shapiro and whatnot. Like this is a, there's nothing like it on the left and Donald Trump has a very, very big advantage in that, like, if you go and look at his rallies, when people are there, They're not actually really paying attention to him.

They're not listening to what he says there. But they know that when they go back home and they turn on Steve Dannon's podcast or whatever, [00:20:00] he will have provided them exactly the, the bullet points from what happened there and they'll believe it. And Biden doesn't have that.

CLERMONT: I would also say, like, before it came on today, this morning I was looking at a new study that came from the Pew Research Center, and they did in depth looks at Facebook users, Twitter users, TikTok users, and Instagram users.

And you look at the report on TikTok users, 45 percent of them say that they That they end up getting fed to them political content. Most of them go on to TikTok for entertainment and only 7 percent produce political content for TikTok. So you have, you, there is a vehicle that's as we all know, it's not, not that is owned by a, the Chinese government, which is actively feeding political content to people going on the site who are not there for political content.

It is more of a one way. It's not [00:21:00] like people go on Twitter. I think Twitter is just mostly like political hacks like me who go on and make political comments and interact with other people on politically. That's not what pick talk is and other social media channels. Our people are doing. They're not there for politics, but they're getting politics.

The algorithm is serving them political content. And I'd be willing to bet there's a video that was all on my socials this morning of Joe Biden at a concert on the White House lawn where he was looking rather old, and I just sort of shuddered at how much that's just being fed through all these different channels to people that are not seeking out political news.

And I'll just say what what you said really resonates with me. Just how different things are. And in 2014 I was working for a non profit organization and I would regularly go to these briefings at the DNC that progressive groups would have and they would meet [00:22:00] with leading democratic strategists and one of them that really stuck out with me was A prominent, one of the more prominent pollsters was talking about the Republican campaign strategy that year.

And he's just like, in Iowa, I can't fully figure it out. Like they have like 12 different message tracks that they're using in mail and on TV and digitally. And it's just like, there's no coherent theme. They're just throwing stuff out there. And like so much of Democratic. Democratic people in the nineties and early two thousands that came up in democratic politics and democratic messaging.

The key was discipline, having the same saying, finding the right three things to say, saying them over and over and over again, getting the words right and being focused because that's what people will respond to. And we really did shift even before Trump to the key in political communications is having as many compelling messages that your campaign can produce, spew them [00:23:00] out as much as you can through all these different channels that have proliferated.

On Facebook, on YouTube, and all these different places. And then see which one sticks to which audience, and then keep feeding them. And you're right, like, we, we have a much harder time doing that. Like, the democratic campaign structure is still largely based on our money is going to put up 30 second television ads on local television.

And that's important, but it's a small component of what needs to be done to actually mobilize public opinion.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I guess to that end also, there is. There has been some interesting discussion I think sparked by Nate Cohn, the New York Times pollster about the idea that and it's not just other people have noticed this as well, that in surveys, I mean, the paradox is a lot of Democratic voters are not paying attention a lot, or they don't, they're kind of diffident about Joe Biden, but also the [00:24:00] other flip side is that for people who are very likely to vote, Joe Biden does much better among those people.

So what, what do you think is going on with that dichotomy there, or do you believe that that one's real?

CLERMONT: I, it's kind of a cop out to say we'll see on election day. I've seen this belief that the 2022 election sort of validates this. But we actually like, we've gone back and looked at our own analytics and our own models from the voter in 2022 was more of a Trump voter.

There were more Trump voters in the 2022 electorate than there were Biden voters, and Trump voters turned out at a higher rate in 22 than Biden voters did. So it was just not the typical midterm drop off that we've normally saw. Like from 2008 to 2010 or from 2012 to 2014. I think we sort of used a much bigger democratic drop off, but it wasn't like the 2022 electorate was overwhelmingly more Biden.

And then I think the, when you look at these [00:25:00] polls and then they say that the Non 2020 voter is more Trump. I don't think they think that's true. They're largely undecided But the the challenge is if you're doing telephone polling with the response rate as low as they are, which is one or two percent It's really hard.

It's really hard to get a voter on to do a phone poll And it's even harder to get a non voter And I, I think it's gonna be a challenge for every pollster in every method. It changed research. We, we don't do phone polling. We do our polling explicitly online. We're, we're trying to reach as broad a population as possible.

And I think, like, I think the 2020 non voter who's answering a poll is just fundamentally different than the larger population of non voters. I, I do, can, you do see that the attachment to Joe Biden and opinions about Joe Biden, attachment to the Democratic Party with younger [00:26:00] voters is much less than it is with older voters.

But the older electorate in this country is still tilts Trump. And it's still going to be a very close election that is going to come down to how do you persuade and turn out younger voters to the idea that voting for Joe Biden is going to, is ultimately more in their interest in voting for Donald Trump.


SHEFFIELD: I don't think

CLERMONT: they're really going to tell us that to the degree we want them to and expect them to until we get much closer to the election.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's right. And, and I think, yeah, the, the, the lack of response, the lack of or rather, the low response rates, it, it makes. determining not just who is a likely voter, but who even is out there.

It makes it much less of a science and much more of an and I think a lot of people who are news consumers are not aware of that. And they probably should be.

CLERMONT: And it's always the case with undecided voters or [00:27:00] none of the above voters. We saw in this national poll that those voters who don't have a choice in this election, when we asked them who they voted for in 2020.

Overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden, which is again, the challenge you have, we have to sort of persuade them to go from no choice, none of the above, not sure to buy. But it's, you have to acknowledge that the, the undecided voters exist. And like who they are more likely to, to vote for when you're assessing this election and realize that they couldn't end up not vote that's yeah, that's the, the type of thing that keeps me and every democratic strategist up at night and will for the next five months.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and there is a bit of a paradox. I mean, that it's possible that some of these voter, because a lot of democratic C4 groups in particular spend a lot of money on voter registration. But [00:28:00] as Trump is mobilizing kind of the sort of I don't know, the, religious as an identity rather than a participation people.

And there are quite a few of those or people who let's say, And this is a cross racial phenomenon. Like you see Trump going out to UFC events and trying to go and find, people that are not participating, generally speaking in civic culture or voting and and that's why he's trying to do all these outreach. I mean, he had some rappers who were gang members accused of murder on put them on the stage with him in New York. And they, he didn't do that just because he's celebrating being a criminal. It's, They must have had some sort of data that showed them that there are people who like these guys and maybe it will be helpful to us.

I don't know. What do you think?

CLERMONT: I think that's right.

Trump is doubling down on Republicans' negative campaign strategies

CLERMONT: And I think if, if you're from the Trump campaign and you, you have, you know that you're fairly strong with your existing group of voters, [00:29:00] like, like they, they had the opportunity to turn away from Trump during the primary and go with Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley or any of the other people who are running that I've already forgotten about.

And They didn't do it. They, but Trump won pretty much everything. So, and it's just like, who are the new slice of voters out there? And I think what they're particularly looking at are. I mean, men under 30, people who were like in middle school and in high school when Trump first started running for president, who have much lower attachment to, whose political identities aren't really formed do not necessarily have the same level of attachment, anti Trump feeling that older people do, and Sort of the, for lack of a better word, sort of the MSNBC outrage works very effectively with my mother is not going to work with these group of voters.

And if you're trying to persuade a new group, group of voters with an outlaw image and [00:30:00] something that's different, something that's different that would be the group that I would go after. Because that's, that's where the most. where the most potential they have with, with, with voters who really are not committed on either side.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Yeah, I think that's right. But it's also that Trump is like a typical Republican in one sense that. They're very, they're a lot better in opposition than they are in governance. They don't know how to govern. They can't pass legislation because they all actually hate each other.

And so, but when they're on the outside, shooting into the tent, that's a lot easier for them. And so, Trump's sort of, I mean, the phrase he used for his inauguration was American carnage, he was going to stop that. There are a lot of people out there I think that have, um, they feel like the economy hasn't worked for them. They feel like the educational market hasn't worked for them. They are frustrated in their personal life. Maybe they want to have a relationship and [00:31:00] they don't have one or, whatever it is. They feel dissatisfied in a number of ways.

And Trump's negativity, apocalyptic narrative actually is really effective for them because he'll say anything to win. And so. And, but, but, like this is Trump's way of doing what Bill Clinton famously said to feel that, feel their pain, that's what he's doing, I think, in some sense.

CLERMONT: Yeah. And what you've said in terms of the multi billion dollar Republican conservative right wing media system combined with Trump, it is to create much. As much negative sentiment about everything in American life as they can, and it was interesting. There was a poll that was come out by this group called blueprint, which had like of young voters and sort of agreement with a lot of these apocalyptic statements.

You look at that a little bit further. The people who strongly agree that, like, basically things are terrible is in the mid twenties. [00:32:00] The thing that struck out to me in that poll is only 27, 23 percent of young voters think that their life will be worse than their parents. 45 percent believe will be better.

But 54 percent believe the U. S. Will be worse off. And there's lots of polling that we've done. I think the New York Times poll that was just released recently that was so bad for Biden. It's like 75 percent of people say they were satisfied with how things are going in their personal life. But just the similar percentage believe that things are just going horribly in this country today.

And that is where the benefit is. It's just like it's not like my life is so terrible. We need to shake and break things up.

Economic challenges and Biden's presidency

CLERMONT: It's this, like the constant negativity about the country, which has also been, I mean, Joe Biden, if you were to pick a time to be president, probably the four years after COVID would not be that sort of the same blueprint poll majority believed life was [00:33:00] better pre COVID.

We've gone through this massive disruption. But I mean, it's just basically when Trump was president, personal disposable income grew at a higher rate than inflation. And then it really grew at a much higher rate inflation during. The COVID pandemic where Trump and the Fed just flooded everything with money and people got through it because they had money from the government that they don't get normally.

And Joe Biden, after that instant spike of the Recovery Act, inflation has grown faster than personal disposable income his entire presidency. And that is the weight, is, makes this much more challenging. Even if Democrats didn't have the structural media advantages that we do. Disadvantage that we currently face just the experience of people's like just the amount of money that they believe that they have And the belief that they're falling behind Their income is falling behind the cost of living has [00:34:00] created this cloud that gets back to your first question of why is Biden?

tied with someone who led a coup and who's a convicted felon and And if you watch any of his recent rallies, especially when he's talking about sharks and batteries and boats is clearly not all there it is because like we're living in an era where The income going to the bottom 90 is at the lowest it has been in a hundred years people are paying more for education than they I certainly did when I went to college and Everything is costing more.

And this belief that things in this country are out of control. Some of which you can see in the news and other things is manufactured by this billion dollar right wing news system. That is why this race is so close. It's this belief that things are out of, beyond my life, things are out of control elsewhere and the sort of halo effect [00:35:00] every previous presidential administration has when they've been gone for a few years is what's Trump's advantage is running again now, and it's very hard to analyze of just like what's going to happen in the future.

I wish we all knew, but this race is fundamentally different. Than any race that we've had before. Polling gives us some clues, but none of it is definitive.


Trump's past actions and public awareness

SHEFFIELD: Well, and it's also that, especially with younger voters. As you said, people who were in middle school or high school, they probably really don't have any idea of what Trump as the president was like and all the, things that he did, all the corruption, all the different scandals, all the attempts to break the law and to, arrest people.

I mean, like I think even now, like people. Aren't I'd say most people are not aware that Donald Trump actually tried to pressure Jeff Sessions to arrest Hillary Clinton. Like lock her up. Wasn't just talk. He [00:36:00] literally tried to do it and was denied by Jeff Sessions. But like, there was just so much stuff that he did and, and they never heard of any of it.

And many of them, like, and like, there's been surveys showing that a lot of people. Aren't even aware that he was indicted for trying to steal the election in 2020. They don't even know that this happened. It's disturbing.

CLERMONT: It's his advantage. And then Gallup put out these amazing word clouds right after the 2016 election.

It's just like, what, what did you hear about Hillary? And it's this giant word email that dominates and everything else is in tiny type and you look at Trump's one. And it's just like, there's no one thing, no one word, no one scandal that dominates And like, I'm sure, like, I don't read the books and sort of looking back at the Trump administration, but like sort of open up one of them and go back.

It's like, Oh, my God, did that really happen? It's we've we forget about it because there was so much of it and just so much stuff put out [00:37:00] there and that has been one of one of probably his most effective way beyond his hero narrative stories of just putting so much stuff out there that no one it's why


CLERMONT: And part, part of me is just like, this is really annoying, like debate on Twitter and on sub stacks and podcasts of just like, like how far should Democrats go in calling him a convicted felon? And. I mean, the Biden team and one of the more recent ads, I think gets at it. It's just like showed a picture of Trump and corrupt and Trump, corruption, Trump, corruption, because corruption is something bigger than well, Trump is a bad guy.

He's committed felonies. It's Trump is a corrupt politician. People know that corrupt politicians ultimately steal from them. And it's part of like, and people, The majority of this country believe that the cause of inflation has been economic [00:38:00] and corporate corruption and greed more than the policies of the Biden administration.

So, I mean, Joe Biden early on in his administration tried to portray himself as like, The new FDR, if anything, like this campaign and the second term needs to be focused on being the new Teddy Roosevelt, going after economic corruption, defeating the most corrupt president we've ever had in our history, beating him soundly once and for all, and then taking on all the corrupt interests that have been backing him that The corrupt Republican nominee for president has said, if you give me a billion dollars to the oil companies, I'll give you all that you want.

I mean, the key for these young voters is Is really just like, what is, what does this Trump second term mean for them? And the, the late Republican pollster, Arthur Finkelstein had this formulation of, there's only two types of elections. There's character elections and then there are issue elections.

And I think we have [00:39:00] enough experience now that we're, we've done the character campaigns against Trump, that sort of. That's why, another reason why we're at parody now. And it's like, how do we do an effective issue campaign that makes his corruption central? But has a plan and a vision that goes beyond the candidates in this race and about what type of country this is going to be.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and yeah, the whole debate about, how much to call him a felon or whatnot. It's, I think it's missing the point that in today's media environment. The quality of a message matter is a lot less than the quantity of messages, plural. And, and that's again, like that is, this is a, this is a new way of thinking especially for Democrats because it's not, as you were saying, like everything used to be, well, we're going to say these things here and there, and that's what [00:40:00] we're going to stick to.

And then, yeah, for this brief moment in Obama, 2008. It's almost like, I don't know, like they prefigured the, the environment that we're in, but nobody seems to have learned as much from that experience as I feel like they should have. Like, there was, I think and I forget who it was, but said something like Obama in 2008 is who you want him to be.

And like that's, That got lost along the way, like people need to understand, they have, they have to create a way of thinking about Joe Biden that is valid for any different person, like you have to create multiple ways. And what does this mean for me? What does this mean? Student loans?

Does this mean, ending airline, convenience fees and ATM surcharges and like, those are all things that Biden's done. Amen. But if you don't tell people that he's done them, then how are they ever going to know about it? Especially when the only things that [00:41:00] they really hear are just lies about the economy, being in a depression or something.

CLERMONT: No, it's, it's my old boss, Harrison Hickman once said they walked into this meeting with the Gore campaign. It's just like, this campaign is simple. It's just like, Al Gore is on your side, George W. Bush is not. And I think you could do, you take that basic formulation for almost any election that's come after that.

It's like, okay, that's the story you want to tell, and then what are the different proof points, and in the past you might need four. Now we probably need 50 and we've got to figure out, like, how do you get that? How do you get the right message in terms of the right voter with the right media? I mean, that that's the 2024 problem.

The actual, like, what we want to say, like, basically, Joe Biden is on your side. Donald Trump is not like there are endless numbers of proof points of that, and it's Like, there is no sort of one single thing. [00:42:00] I know right now, and I've tested this myself, like, you hear a lot about 35 insulin. That is because that is the Biden accomplishment that tests the highest, and has the highest broad sort of recognition of the benefit of it.

And then which is, which is good, which is the right start. And then the rest of it needs to fit in with that larger, larger frame. And then it's just sort of what society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society of freedom where you have economic freedom to Pursue your best option for life is personal freedom, where, if you're a woman, you can make your own reproductive decisions.

You don't have to check in with your state legislator. Are we fighting for freedom in other countries that are being invaded by totalitarian leaders? It's, it's. The one thing I, I will give the Biden team a lot of credit. Like they, they're the ads and their frame, foundational frame of freedom works.

We've done a lot of work. I've done a lot of work with that with [00:43:00] future majority of testing, almost any way to talk about any issue through the lens of freedom. And that is how they've defined a lot, like the high, high level of messaging in the campaign. And then from that is you can build all sorts of proof points from that, and it's like you said, it's, it is the quantity of getting that in front of the most number of people in a way that they can, well, they're actually be able to sort of, A, hear it, B, it sticks with them for more than five seconds, and then C, just like, reinforces the argument of why Trump And the wider Republican party are such a danger going forward.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, because, it's, I think, as you were saying earlier, that Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign was largely, a character attack on Donald Trump and didn't work. And this is the other fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican ecosystems is that, [00:44:00] the, the Democratic electorate has to have a vision of the future.

They have to have a positive thing that they are moving toward in order to, to really be enthused and come out. The Republican electorate. the world is ending and it's hopeless and nothing can improve. So they don't need that. And so if you, but if you're a Democrat and, and the only thing you're saying, if the only thing you're saying is we have to protect democracy from Donald Trump, the, the dictator wannabe for people who don't feel served by democracy right now.

That means nothing to them. It's, it's, it's like saying, well, I want you to help you keep your job while I hate my job. And I hate my boss. Like that's, that's what I'm saying here is that people, they, Democrats and left leaning people want something better to look forward to and they need to have a vision and Biden, that's, I think that's the big thing he's got to do here to get these [00:45:00] people enthused.

CLERMONT: Which I would argue is why focusing on freedom is a way that moves beyond the current debate right now. If you just say protecting democracy, just flip it, defending your freedom, you can talk about so many more different things with different audiences. Democracy isn't necessarily working right now. I kind of agree with that because there are 49 Republican senators who are blocking everything that we're doing.

And an absolute, I don't know. I just characterized Mike Johnson is an interesting choice to be speaker of the house. And hopefully that experiment will last only a few more months. But yeah, the, the fight for, it's not so much. It. Democracy and fighting for democracy and fighting for continued fair elections is important is a much larger fight to protect our freedoms.

That are under assault from not only Donald Trump, but Republican state legislators, Republican governors evangelical [00:46:00] pastors and all these different dark money groups that are funding all of this. That's what our fight is about. It is, are we going to have the opportunity, are we going to have the economic opportunities to live better lives and the economic freedom to do that?

And are we going to have the Freedom to make our own decisions. Or are we going to outsource that to the Congress state legislatures in the Supreme court? I would passionately say, no, I don't want that. And that's, that's the choice that we need to make clearest in this election.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, I, I think that's right.

Hispanic voters and immigration policies

SHEFFIELD: And I, I guess one of the other interesting message points Is and, and this has been a longer term trend that to go back to the religion thing that, evangelicals or people with those belief systems have become increasingly, increasingly Republican, but also, Republicans have becoming more evangelical as well.

So like Pew has done some, some they've [00:47:00] stayed in touch with a group of voters and with a giant panel survey. And that's what, and they found it, the Republican party has become more evangelical over the years. But there, and, and there is a considerable growing amount of research about the Hispanic population becoming more evangelical as well.

And as that happens. They also are becoming more Republican. And like, and so I guess this is my way of getting into immigration as a topic because I think that the sort of the online or the political activists today. People on Twitter, especially who are, who are left leaning there, they're very angry about Joe Biden doing this policy that he did with to tighten border asylum applications.

And I don't think they realized that the polling really does actually support him. Quite a bit on this regard. What do you

CLERMONT: think it does? And I think it's always important. Say this is a poster that the Hispanic community is not a monolith and is very different in [00:48:00] different places. But yeah, it's not surprising to me because we sort of been old and been doing political work forever.

In 2012, I did focus groups in Las Cruces, New Mexico with Hispanic voters on. The then New Mexico governor Susana Martinez's effort to ban driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. That was what the Republicans that year were basing their entire legislative campaign on. And you would think like, Las Cruces is very close to the Mexican border and there would be greater outrage about like the governor's proposal.

But I think that room was. split fairly evenly between people who supported that policy and who didn't, and who spoke very passionately opposed to that policy. And, I think the audience, the Anglo audience we had after that was, we ended up cutting that one short because they were so overwhelmingly in favor of banning [00:49:00] driver's licenses.

There was no, there was no moving any of them. But yeah, there was a large debate that year between the activist community on that policy and where the voters were. And that Democrats, we were able to thread the needle in the campaign that year and expanded our, Numbers in the House and the Senate. But it was very, very tough and very difficult.

And this, the Hispanic, Hispanic population is like every other population in this country. You have to do in depth studies of them, understand the nuances on how they approach these issues. Understand, yeah, the growing influence of religion and how economic issues trump a lot of other things, just like they do for many other voters in the electorate.

And. I mean, Democrats, Hispanics broadly have voted more for Democratic nominees for president in Congress than Republicans, but that number is much more variable than we [00:50:00] appreciate. George W. Bush got almost 45 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and I think we look, Obama did particularly well in 2012, and Hillary did in 2016 with the way that the issues were framed then.

But a lot has happened since then, and, I mean, Democrats can't count on the support from any population. We've got to go out and earn every vote. And yeah, the issue set in the way to approach voters is different now than it was when they racked up big numbers, but I think that the issues as they relate to immigration are very, very nuanced, and they always have been.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I think that, I mean, this goes to the, the kind of the, the larger problem of the electorate.

Republican primary dynamics and voter motivation

SHEFFIELD: Like, people too often think of, of voting and who, who wins the elections as, oh, well, so when people were persuaded from one side to the other, or the [00:51:00] undecideds were persuaded, but in many cases, it's just about who actually show up. And like, and, and I think to some degree people are, people have gotten there, there are some people on the left side of the aisle that have gotten some undue hope from all these Nikki Haley undead primary voters. They're trying to say, Oh, look at all these people that Donald Trump hasn't persuaded.

And it's like, because his fans aren't bothering to vote. Do you not understand that? And that it's, Democrats or Independents who hate Trump emphatically and are showing up to give him the middle finger and the ballot box. You really can't draw any inferences from what these votes were for Nikki Haley.

I don't.

CLERMONT: I would say, broadly, I would agree with that. It is interesting in states like Pennsylvania and Florida that have closed Republican primaries. That she got 20, like 15, 20 percent there. It's, it's not nothing. Not sure what it means for the general election yet, but I think, [00:52:00] look, I think most Republicans are going to vote for Trump.

It's ultimately like he was able to draw the inside straight against Hillary because ultimately more Romney voters voted for Trump than Obama voters voted for Hillary. That's, that's just reality that we face, but it's not nothing like when I was saying that he's gained support since 2022 among Republicans, his very favorable has gone from 50 to 61.

So that means like 39 percent of Republicans are not very favorable towards him. And in the 2018 election, those people by and large sat home, like the, the, the Democrats who are very unfavorable towards Trump, they voted. The Republicans, very favorable towards Trump, they voted. The people who stayed home, by and large, were Republicans who didn't love Trump.

And there are plenty of Republicans who don't love Trump. They're just not going to vote for a Democrat. They're not going to vote for Biden. But, like, there's something there. There is general [00:53:00] dissatisfaction. And there are ways to try to demotivate Republicans either overtly or covertly. That like all options need to be on the table in order to do that.

And again, Trump is going to be, if he debates in a couple of weeks, which I doubt he will we'll sort of see like, this isn't the Trump that existed in 2015 and 2016, this isn't the Trump that existed in 2020 he's benefited by being off Twitter. Off our screens only within the right wing media ecosystem, which you reading the teleprompter.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.

CLERMONT: Reading the teleprompter being in the right wing bubble that democratic strategists like me are like barely, barely aware of. That is really, really helped him. But in theory, this is a campaign where he's going to have to get out of that at some point in this race, actually, we'll have to start at some point and then it will become a lot more challenging.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, all right.

How Republicans use "demotivation" tactics to target left-leaning Americans

SHEFFIELD: Well, let's maybe end with [00:54:00] a discussion of a topic. You just mentioned there. I was a perfect inadvertent segue, which is the motivation. So the, the Republican Party has, has spent a lot of money over the decades on that. And whether it was running ads for Ralph Nader in 2004, the only television ads in 2004 that ran for Ralph Nader were paid for by Republicans.

Yeah. And so, but, but, but they also, so like Peter Thiel, he is a backer of this. Podcasting platform called callin which also funds people like Brianna joy gray and funds other ostensibly left wing podcasters such as Jimmy door. And those individuals seem to basically only attack. Joe Biden and never say anything bad about Donald Trump and people who are allegedly socialists that's an interesting posture, I have to say.

CLERMONT: Yeah, no that's, it's another one [00:55:00] of the effective tools that the right wing Right wing donors know how to do media. They know how to buy media. They know how to control media and they find the right people who are perfectly fine taking money to say things that they already likely already believe, but but still pretending to be something else.

And there's no easy challenge to that. I mean, again, I think part of it becomes awareness. I was talking to someone. last week who's interested in looking at Jill Stein voters and seeing how persuadable they are and asked him if he had listened to any podcasts that Jill Stein has been on, such as people that you mentioned Brianna Joy Gray and Jimmy Dore and Katie Halper and some of the others.

And he hadn't. And when you do that and you sort of hear just how extreme the rhetoric is, I would also put in it just coincidentally that all of the [00:56:00] things that they say, particularly about the war in Ukraine somehow also dovetail with the propaganda coming out of the Kremlin. That is a major challenge that does need to have a lot more exposure than it currently does.

It is, it is always interesting to me that people, people do, including me, obsessed about, like, what's being spread on TikTok, and is on Twitter, and crazy thing, Elon, or crazy, racist, insane thing Elon has written on Twitter, very little attention is paid to YouTube, which is by far and away the dominant one.

Social media platform in this country that is used by many, many different people to spread misinformation and to spread misinformation, but also to make money by broadcasting very well produced shows. And we're not gonna, Democrats are not going to win by pretending that doesn't exist. We just have to find the right platforms to call [00:57:00] it out and expose it.

But yeah, it's, it's always, I've done a lot of work in New Mexico over the years, and we certainly have races that swing somehow swing races, these random green candidates show up. And every time we go in and challenge the signatures and what they've been doing, it's always been backed with by the New Mexico Republican party.

That always seems to happen. I remember there was a green candidate who was going to run in the race between Bob Casey and Rick Santorum in 2006, and all of the effort and organizing effort on that side was coming straight from the Santorum campaign. This is something that's been going on a long time that deserves a lot more attention from the national press, just to tell the story of how politics is really being done in this country.

But yeah, we can expect a lot of that level of demotivation that is some, that is in the interest of Peter Thiel and David Sachs and that whole network, which also happens to dovetail with the interest of Vladimir Putin and President [00:58:00] Xi in China. Yeah,

SHEFFIELD: it is. Yeah. And and of course, I mean, it should be said that no candidate is owed anybody's vote.

And if there's for people who feel like the Democratic Party is not progressive enough for them I think that that's, there's nothing wrong with having that viewpoint. But on the other hand, if you actually want to achieve your ideals, well, then you need to get involved in primaries and you need to be in favor of ranked choice voting.

Like that's. That's what you should actually do if you're serious about this stuff, rather than having helping Donald Trump in the general election and, or, I mean, Cornel West is literally running for president to make money because he's a deadbeat dad who owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in IRS taxes.

That's why this guy's running for president. It's not sincere in any way, shape, or form. And you are a fool if you vote for him. It's that simple.

CLERMONT: Yes, it is there. There are plenty of ways to get active [00:59:00] politically in your community. It's no more simple thing than walking around your neighborhood and knock on doors and talk to people about what they believe is important.

And, and you have your point of view that that is what persuasion is all about. That's what that's what real politics is all about. It is not going on YouTube to rant and rave to get the biggest, monetize the biggest audience. Mean, that helps that you do a substantive show like this, then monetizing that I'm 100 percent for.

But yeah, the politics is really about making it, being active and making a difference locally and in primaries and then just like persuading. People that progressive policies are the best way to move forward in this country. That's Ultimately anything that passes in any big movement has been based on persuasion.

It is not letting the other side have power and then expecting we're going to have this mass revolutionary [01:00:00] reaction to it that is childish, childish, and if it actually did happen, would be far more dangerous than whatever fantasies you think it's going to be no clearer than the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution or anything throughout history of revolutionary change produces an awful lot of violence and ultimately leads to the rule of a strong man.

And. Hopefully we will not have that the American experiment will preclude that, but it's only going to preclude it by us doing the hard work every day of persuading people that our ideas and our plans and our vision for the future is better than the other sides.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, I think that's a great way to end it there.

So Steven for people who want to keep up with your stuff, what's your recommendation for that?

CLERMONT: I would always change research has a new sub stack called touch grass. Where we give our perspective on the data that we are collecting and interpreting I would [01:01:00] subscribe to that subscribe to change polls on twitter and I think the key fundamental thing is Don't stay off 538.

Don't let polls make you crazy. Polls are not therapy polls are not Designed to for your mood of the day. It is It is understanding public opinion and really the best thing you can do is talk to your friends and family go knock on doors in your community. Do other things, get informed in different ways other than looking at polling averages because I think the dirty secret is that they're not always right.

They haven't been right in recent elections, but polls are tools to help candidates win. And although we're not working for the Biden campaign or, I am wishing all the best of luck for them to figure this out because we're working for a whole bunch of other candidates down the ballot that all, all need to win.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, sounds good. [01:02:00] And oh, I, I guess you, you should give your Twitter a plug. Oh, sorry. You can do that. Sorry. My, my

CLERMONT: Twitter, my Twitter account is SJ Claremont SJ C-L-E-R-M-O-N-T, and change Researchers Twitter account is@changepolls.com. Oh. Not change polls.com at Change polls.


All right. Well, sounds good. Thanks for joining me again. Thanks,

CLERMONT: Matthew.


All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody joining us for the discussion and you can always get more if you go to theoryofchange.

show. You can get the video, audio, and transcript of all the episodes. And my thanks especially to those of you who are paid subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and please do tell your friends and family about the show. I appreciate it very much. Thanks a lot. [01:03:00] [01:04:00] [01:05:00]

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.