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‘People Are Throwing Down the Gauntlet’: Pollster David Paleologos Talks COVID, the Shifting Politics Around Education & How It Could Shape the 2022 Midterms

David Paleologos (Suffolk University)

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See previous 74 Interviews: Andrew Rotherham on the Virginia governor’s race, activist Tina Descovich on school board politics, and author Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder on free speech and Critical Race Theory. The full archive is here

Off-year elections function as political weathervanes, offering the first concrete data on the electorate’s ever-changing moods. 

Last November, Democrats watched nervously as the indicators began pointing conspicuously rightward. Closing his campaign with a determined focus on education, businessman Glenn Youngkin led a slate of Republicans to victory in Virginia, where Democrats triumphed for much of the last decade and President Biden won a 10-point victory in 2020. Local activists and national political observers agreed that the state’s record of lengthy school closures during the pandemic — along with more recent controversies over equity politics in schools — helped carry the day for the GOP.

One political expert who took notice was David Paleologos. The director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center — a well-regarded polling organization that fields surveys both in Massachusetts and around the country — has conducted a series of polls examining attitudes about education and other issues in cities like Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. In a conversation with The 74 conducted in the immediate aftermath of last fall’s elections, Paleologos noted the huge electoral challenge facing Democrats if their rivals “can even be competitive — forget leading — among those primarily concerned with education.”

With the 2022 midterm elections less than a year away and the Omicron variant bringing a new wave of school closures, The 74’s Kevin Mahnken spoke again with the Massachusetts pollster to discuss the public salience of K-12 issues and the Democrats’ options to steady the ship. To win the swing voters who will likely decide election outcomes this November, he says, the party will need to rediscover the art of political branding and counter Republicans’ efforts to use schools as a wedge.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been a few months since the startling results in Virginia. What changes, if any, have you perceived in how voters are responding to education issues?

My sense is that it’s dissipated somewhat, that voters are now more concerned about inflation, the economy, and COVID more specifically. What Democrats have to do is grab back the issue of education on its face. What Republicans have to do is say, “There’s a disconnect between Democrats and swing voters,” and last fall was just an indication of that. Maybe they’ll pick a different issue next fall, or maybe when we have fall enrollment again, the same issues will resurface — the teaching of CRT [critical race theory] and so on. 

On the one hand, Democrats are poised to take back the issue, which has always been strong for Democrats. But Republicans can yield the issue while still preserving the narrative that Democrats are disconnected. They don’t necessarily need the K-12 issue as it stood prominently in the Virginia race and in New Jersey, but it could be one they try to press with swing voters.

Education was a kind of meta-issue last year, encompassing several controversies about public health, curriculum, and even transgender rights. Perhaps this was because COVID disrupted a social service that people had long taken for granted, but I wouldn’t have predicted that schools would command so much attention for an entire year.

Terry McAuliffe didn’t help the Democratic Party with his comments. From his lips to the swing voters’ ears, they had a problem. But it’s true that there were multiple levels within education that Republicans kept exploiting, and make no mistake, they’re looking at the polling data. They’re looking at parents in the suburbs, especially women, who are key to the swing vote. 

And what does a suburban parent care about? Health care and education. When you have one of those issues, and you can point the finger at Democrats and say, “They’re not your party, they don’t want you involved in the process” — that can be a very effective message with moms, who are very territorial about their children’s education. Republicans were painting Democrats as the anti-suburban-mom party, and Democrats really didn’t have the time or the research to counter that message [in Virginia]. They have the time now, and the research to retool. The question is whether their counterargument is enough to stick with those same voters. 

Either way, I think the Democrats’ m.o. of trying to make Trump the bogeyman in the midterms didn’t work in Virginia or New Jersey because they were swinging at nothing. Trump wasn’t in Virginia except when Democrats introduced his name, so it just wasn’t as acute as it was when he was on the ballot. Democrats need to reshape their messaging there.

The major change in educational conditions since last November has definitely been the rise of Omicron, and the combination of school closures and staff shortages that have resulted. A Suffolk poll from early January found respondents opposing a return to virtual instruction by a 36-point margin. Do you think Nate Silver is right that further closures could be a “huge political liability” for Democrats?

Yeah. And you can couple what Nate said with the fact that colleges have had an enrollment drop, in back-to-back years, of over 6 percent — it’s like the lowest rate in 50 years. That means students don’t want to learn remotely, and some students can’t.

I’ve got two boys in college. My oldest thrives in both environments, and my youngest hates online instruction. He’s a technology whiz, but he hates Zoom learning, and he likes the eyeball-to-eyeball interaction. Both of them took gap years during COVID, which we hadn’t planned on, and it was tough for them to get back in the swing of things this year. So you have that struggle going on with everybody — that poll question you cited includes young people, parents, grandparents. 

When you look at the totality of it, Democrats have to reconcile that poll finding with teachers’ unions, which may be positioning themselves against some Democrats. We may need to see some polls of teachers themselves: What does the rank-and-file teacher want to do? Do they feel safe? And do they totally align with their unions’ positions? It’s a problem, but there’s really no way to say whether or not the education issue and the coronavirus question will be relevant next fall. 

It is right now, and that poll finding was powerful. People are throwing down the gauntlet, like, “Enough is enough, we’re done with this.” Think about that, if you’re a Democratic candidate in a swing district next fall. Obviously, you’re going to poll [remote learning] in your district, and there are good arguments on both sides. But if you’re trying to win the middle, the middle on that question is “no.”

It seems like there are figures within the Democratic orbit who are hearing that message. Pollster Brian Stryker, for example, has been sounding the alarm about public opinion for months. Do you think the party is starting to respond to what they’re seeing from their constituents?

More and more, yes, and it goes back to the point I made about Virginia. Republicans painted this disconnect, and any time you have a hot-button issue like CRT or school closures, you can use that as a prop to get at the larger point: Democrats are disconnected. That’s what they did [last fall], and anyone who was truly on the fence — those precious people who actually swing elections — they’d had enough. Especially people who saw their children or grandchildren struggle with remote learning. 

This isn’t as related to education, but the other issue is that the number of people reporting mental health problems is skyrocketing. Domestic violence is up as well. So for people who had kids trying to learn at home, where chaos is up and the quality of the learning experience is down, of course that’s going to be unattractive to the people who swing elections.

But there is some countervailing evidence. Since the pandemic began, surveys have shown that many parents — particularly from low-income and non-white families — actually favor online instruction as a means of suppressing COVID. What do we do with the apparent contradictions here, including majorities that seemingly fear their kids catching COVID and don’t want to close schools? Is this about different pollsters asking different questions?

In part, we are asking different questions. But you’ve also got to ask, who matters next November? What party affiliation, what income level, what race, what matters next November? It’s not the people who are registered Democrats, low-income persons of color; they’re voting Democrat all the way down. And it’s not the other side; you can put anyone on the ballot, and they’re going to vote Republican. It’s the people in the middle that are key here. For Democrats to be competitive in Congress, they have to win the people in the middle. 

This is why Biden has had such a big problem passing legislation with Senators Sinema and Manchin. They’ve positioned themselves as the ultimate defenders of swing voters, and both happen to be Democrats. I think the reason why Biden is getting hit so hard is that he sold himself as a person who would reach across the aisle. When he was campaigning, his schtick was, “I’ve been in the Senate so long, I have relationships that go back years, I’ll pull a couple Republicans here and there and get the job done.” And just the opposite has happened — not only hasn’t he pulled any Republicans in for any significant legislation, he’s lost a Democrat in the process. 

When you sell yourself like Biden did, that becomes a problem. My youngest son doesn’t know much about AOC [Alexandria Ocasio Cortez], but he likes her because she’s on his media, and there’s something cool about liking AOC. So you’ve got Biden trying to reach across the aisle with one hand, hold Democrats in line with the other hand, and protect the party from losing the middle. 

Through Suffolk’s CityView polls with USA Today, you’ve surveyed a diverse array of urban areas over the last few months: Milwaukee, Detroit, Los Angeles, Louisville, and Oklahoma City. Is K-12 education still a leading issue in these places, as it was last fall?

It is, and in areas where there are high Hispanic populations, education is even more important. The issue of education is a good one if you’re trying to appeal to Hispanic voters.

More generally, we found in those five cities that there were two branding issues for Democrats that were costly. One was about police funding. In Question One, people overwhelmingly oppose “defunding the police”; in Question Two, if you ask them whether they’d rotate money from police budgets to social services and homelessness, they’re all for that — which is what defunding the police is! So that was one branding issue.

The other was CRT. If you ask people in a poll, “Do you support or oppose CRT in classrooms?,” they oppose it. But if you ask, “Do you support or oppose teaching the history of slavery and its current impact in society?,” people support that, even in places like Oklahoma City. I think the lesson is that Democrats have to get better at branding. People can say what they want about someone like Bill Clinton, but he was a very good brander. That’s a place where Democrats can certainly improve. 

I’m sure that Republicans are going to have a way to nationalize this. [In 1994], it was the Contract with America; now it’ll be the “Contract with Parents.” In debates, every Democrat will be asked, “Do you support the Contract with Parents?” That’s a box that immediately closes around candidates. If they say yes, they’re agreeing to a lot of stuff that might be counter to the Democratic Party’s official position. But if they say, “No, it’s a bogus contract,” then all you’ll see in TV ads is the candidate saying no. 

Maybe there’s a bit of a void in terms of young, strategic talent on the Democratic side. I don’t know, but I do know that their branding hasn’t been the best, and there’s polling data everywhere to back that up.

You’re identifying what sound like structural problems in Democratic political messaging. You’re non-partisan, but what would your advice be to them to address some of the problems we’ve talked about?

The party is equipped — it has the resources and the organizational structure — to manage this. Implementation will be tough because there are a few wings to the Democratic Party. But these are all lessons, and we’ve got another election coming up in 11 months. A lot more research needs to be done, and it has to be done carefully.

But [strategy] comes from higher-ups in the party; you have to have good people in those positions who don’t make blunders, because there’s so much on the line this fall.

This narrative that outraged suburban parents will punish Democrats has certainly gotten some traction in early 2022. There have already been some pungent headlines to accompany the polling. But for now, it’s still conjectural. Can you shine any light on how and when we’ll know if backlash to Democratic positions on education will actually translate to election results?

I think we’ll know before the summer because we’re going to have a trajectory for the Omicron cases. We’re going to have a very good scientific forecast, and we’ll know by then whether there’s another variant in play. If there isn’t, the narratives change.

The reason why Steve Bannon is fielding candidates is because it’s hot right now. There are school committee elections that are happening this spring, and elections for all the town committee members and selectmen. They’re trying to use this issue to seed bigger candidates down the line by getting them elected at the local level. It makes total sense to me because if they wait until this fall, and the issue goes away, they’re going to be scrambling to put together an effective political strategy. 

So the Republicans will ride the tide through this spring. But come mid-June, I think we’ll have a clearer picture on COVID. And we’ll certainly have a clearer picture of the economy and whether interest rate hikes have created a problem there. That’s my best guess at the timeline.

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