State Policy Network
Divergent Thinking: Polling trends with AEI’s Karlyn Bowman
How the latest polling on American beliefs can help inform your organization’s strategy.

By Todd Davidson, State Policy Network’s Senior Director of Strategic Development

In developing strategy, state think tanks must be aware of the trends in public opinion. Sometimes public opinion can be a tailwind—it supports our efforts and speeds things along. At other times it’s a headwind—something we have to face down and be ready for in our strategies. Understanding public opinion trends can help us discern what objectives to pursue and which strategies to deploy.

On the latest episode of SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show, we sat down with Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, for a sweeping look at polling trends around several important issues.

Q: It seems a lot of Americans are angry, at least those online. Help us understand: Who is angry, and what are they angry about?

Bowman: Intensity is always important in politics, so I look frequently at the “very strong” responses to questions in polls. CNN asked the most recent poll on anger about two weeks ago. In the poll, 74 percent said that they were angry. And Republicans were angrier than Democrats. When CNN asked the identical question a year ago in a different poll, Democrats were angrier than Republicans.

Interestingly, recent polls have asked many more questions about emotion than they did in the 1930s through the 1970s. You really don’t have a significant number of questions about things such as anger before the 1980s. If you look at the questions over time, roughly 25 to 35 percent of Americans say they’re very angry about something. And of course that probably overlaps with those people in the Twitterverse. About 22 percent of Americans are regularly on Twitter according to Pew Research Center—and of those people on Twitter, a very small number actually post more than occasionally.

Q: What does the polling and trends tell us about whether Americans are liberal or conservative?

Bowman: If you look at the number of Americans who describe themselves as “conservative,” that number has been steady since the early 1990s. It’s about 36 percent of Americans right now. The number of people who call themselves “liberal” in the polls has risen from 17 percent in the early 1990s to about a quarter today.

But what’s important to look at in these questions is the ideological identification of partisans—or how Republicans have changed and how Democrats have changed. Democrats are a lot more comfortable with the “liberal” label than they were 20 years ago. You have more than half of Democrats now saying that they are liberals. And the number of Americans who identify as conservative has also gone up, but the real change has been among Democrats, for whom the L-word [liberal] is no longer a sort of a national pejorative.

Q: Is a belief in socialism on the rise?

Bowman: On the trends on socialism and capitalism, it’s clear that young people in particular are flirting with socialism, as are Democrats. But again, we don’t have long-term trends on some of these questions.

Going back to Gallup’s work in the 1930s and 1940s, they asked people: “Why are you a socialist?” And the traditional definition that I think most conservatives have used over time—about government control of major industries—is not what young people think today when they think “socialist.” These young people are much more likely to think about a more benevolent government and a more activist government overall.

Capitalism tends to be more popular. However, it’s always something you want to watch long term. We don’t have that many people who identify as socialists overall.

Q: You mentioned the definition of socialism has changed. Years ago, it meant government controls the means of production. You’re saying now it has a more benevolent perception—government should spend a bunch of money and subsidize things?

Bowman: That’s exactly right. If you look back to the old Roper polls in the 1930s and 1940s, you had a significant chunk of Americans wanting to nationalize the railroads and nationalize the banks. And some of that is not surprising, after the Great Depression. But still, you don’t see those kinds of numbers now when you ask Americans (as very few pollsters do): Do you want to nationalize various industries?

Q: What does polling tell us about how Americans are feeling about the coronavirus? Are Americans afraid, cautious, or ready to get back to normal?

Bowman: After a period in May, June, and early July, concern about COVID-19 went down based on the fact that Americans we were much more optimistic about the vaccine and how a vaccine would carry us through this crisis. With the delta variant, we’re seeing concern edge back up. Not to the heights that it was in March or April 2020, because then we were really quite afraid overall. There’s some currents that are pretty steady in terms of the data, and I urge your readers to look at Axios Ipsos [Coronavirus index]. They’ve been in the field every single week for 50+ weeks now, asking a panel the same questions about COVID-19.

Q: Are Americans concerned about inflation?

Bowman: Concern about inflation numbers are very high right now, but they’re not as high as they were from 1975 through 1980 when high unemployment and high inflation took such an extraordinary political toll overall. People are concerned about gas prices, they’re concerned about rising prices at grocery stores, and you’re seeing that. One poll that I look at every single month is the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index. This particular poll has been in the field since 1954. And Richard Curtin, who directs that poll, his commentary every month is really significant to watch. He’s seeing some real spikes in terms of concern about inflation overall.

Americans are always concerned about rising prices, but right now they’re extremely concerned about rising prices. If, as a lot of economists are predicting, you see some prices rising for natural gas and oil over the course of the fall—that’s only going to increase. That could be a real weakness for Joe Biden because it’s something people feel every day, and pocketbook issues tend to be very important in terms of voting decisions.

Q: Critical race theory is a hot topic right now. What do the polls tell us about the issue of critical race theory in schools?

Karlyn Bowman: It’s certainly something that could be bubbling up from the ground up. This is not a top-down issue. A very significant chunk of Americans say they don’t know what critical race theory is. But if you ask those people who are knowledgeable about the issue whether they support or oppose critical race theory, you get more opposition than support. But again, in some polls roughly 40 percent say they just don’t know what it is. So this is definitely a bottom-up issue, at least as I’ve been watching it.

Q: Let’s talk about policing. It’s another one of these issues that seems to have loud voices on both sides. How are Americans feeling about that issue?

Karlyn Bowman: Looking at the trends on Black Lives Matter and on the police, you see a very familiar pattern, but one that’s not particularly well known: Views on the police have gone back to where they were before George Floyd. But it’s still an abysmally low level of confidence in the police among African Americans in particular. And if you ask questions about policing, you’ve actually seen whites move closer to blacks over time, in terms of their views about police mistreatment of African Americans.

Additional Resources

In this episode we covered a lot more ground, including conversations on Pumpkin spice lattes and UFOs. Watch the full episode below. To stay abreast of the latest trends in public opinion check out these resources:

Hear the full conversation with Karlyn Bowman

About SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show

SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show features conversations with leaders and thinkers on a range of trends and ideas that can foster innovation and more successful strategies in our work as think tanks and advocacy organizations at the state and local levels.

Policy Issues: Economy
Organization: State Policy Network