How The Infrastructure Deal Might Test The Limits Of Popular Bills

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Something rare just happened in Congress. During an era defined by extreme partisan animosity, Republican and Democratic senators came together on Tuesday to pass a $1.1 trillion infrastructure package that invests billions of dollars in roads, bridges and infrastructure projects; provides federal funding to modernize public transportation and the electrical grid, allowing for more renewable energy.

At first blush, this looks like a huge win for President Biden, who campaigned on the importance of bipartisanship. And as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley previously reported, Americans like it (or at least they say they like it) when Republicans and Democrats work together. 

But this bill is not without political risk for Biden and Democrats. 

For starters, it faces a long path to becoming law. That’s because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has held firm in her decision to not bring up the infrastructure bill in the House until the Senate passes a second, far more ambitious spending package through the budget reconciliation process. Progressive House members have also threatened to withhold support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the Senate acts on this bigger package that includes funding for climate change and health care, among other priorities. 

This could set up a big political fight for Democrats this fall. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the chamber’s most vocal moderate Democrats, says he has not decided if he’ll support the legislation with its current price tag of $3.5 trillion, issuing a statement in which he warned of the bill’s “grave consequences” for the nation’s debt. Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, another vocal moderate, said in late July that she will not support a bill of that price. Plus, touting ambitious bill packages hasn’t worked well for Democrats in the past. Back in 2010, the Affordable Care Act faced a similarly divided Democratic Party, and in fact, subsequent research suggests that the law hurt Democrats in that year’s midterms. One 2012 study found that Democrats who voted in favor of the ACA saw their vote share drop by 8.5 percentage points, on average. Moreover, Republicans didn’t just do well that midterm cycle — they won their largest share of seats in the House since the 1940s.


It’s also possible that voters will be turned off if the fight over passing the infrastructure and reconciliation bills drags on too long and is perceived as too complicated. Research has found that voters often punish — rather than reward — parties that move to achieve their policy goals. 

What’s working in Democrats’ favor right now, though, is that the infrastructure bill is popular. An Economist/YouGov poll from last week found that 51 percent of U.S. adults supported the infrastructure measure, while just 19 percent opposed it. A Quinnipiac survey released the same day put support for the bill even higher, with 65 percent of Americans approving of the package. That said, both polls suggest that more Democrats than Republicans are in favor: 61 percent of Democrats versus 47 percent of Republicans in the Economist/YouGov poll, and a whopping 93 percent of Democrats versus 41 percent of Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll.

One reason something like infrastructure appeals to Americans is because many think that improving infrastructure should be a priority in Washington. According to an AP-NORC survey in July, both Republicans and Democrats were overwhelmingly in favor of various proposals for the infrastructure bill, including funding for roads, bridges and ports as well as funding for pipes that supply public drinking water.

Biden standing at a podium in mid-sentence.

related: Presidents Used To Be The Faces Of Their Political Parties. Is That No Longer The Case? Read more. »

And this fits in Biden’s governing strategy of trying to pass measures that are popular with the overall electorate in the hope that voters will later reward him and Democrats. But it’s not clear whether that strategy will pay off. It’s certainly better than Biden trying to push through unpopular bills, but as the Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, popularity around the COVID-19 stimulus package that Democrats passed in Biden’s first 100 days may not result in electoral benefits. For instance, polling from the Pew Research Center found that support for the bill was especially high among lower-income Republicans, but at least as it pertains to Biden’s approval rating, Republican voters not only largely disapprove of Biden, they strongly disapprove of him as well. At the end of the day, it could be that most Americans are not going to break from their political views regardless of what the other side passes in terms of policy.  

It’s also likely Republicans will try and use the high cost of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills as leverage against Democrats next year. A number of Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have already vowed that Democrats “won’t get our help” to raise the debt limit. Moreover, the bipartisan infrastructure bill now in front of the House is expensive. According to an estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the bill is expected to add $256 billion to the federal debt over the next decade, and as we hinted at, debate over the debt limit this fall is already expected to further divide the two parties. Plus, polls suggest that even now voters are concerned about inflation and the federal government’s ability to handle it. According to a Hill-HarrisX poll in August, 31 percent of registered voters named inflation as their top concern when thinking about the future of the economy. Among Republicans, that number jumped to 37 percent, but 23 percent of Democrats also put inflation as their top concern. 

With Congress in recess until mid-September, it’ll be awhile before we have a clear sense for where this political fight is headed, and which party has the upperhand, but for now, it’s possible that we’ve seen the limit to what popular bills can do.

Other polling bites

  • A major climate report released Monday by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global temperatures are likely to lead to even worse heat waves and other types of extreme weather. Despite that alarming finding, though, U.S. adults don’t seem to be taking climate change more seriously, according to new polling from Morning Consult. In fact, since May, concern over climate change and its impact has remained steady: The share of U.S. adults who say they’re “very concerned” has hovered between 38 percent and 42 percent, while roughly one-third of adults say they’re “somewhat concerned.”
  • On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to resign after the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, released a report last week detailing allegations of sexual harassment by 11 different women. Now Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will become governor, making her the state’s first female governor. But polls show she’s unknown to most New Yorkers. When Marist asked residents about Hochul’s favorability, 64 percent of New Yorkers said either they’ve never heard of her or they don’t know how to rank her.. That said, just 13 percent had an unfavorable view of her and 23 percent had a favorable view, so there is a lot of upside here for Hochul to make a positive impression as she has now said she plans to run for governor in 2022
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed how Americans get groceries. According to new Gallup polling, the percentage of U.S. adults who now say that they order groceries online at least monthly has more than doubled, going from 11 percent in 2019, to 23 percent now. And at this point, this phenomenon is mostly concentrated among married people with young children (37 percent) and those with an annual household income over $100,000 (29 percent). However, a majority of American adults (64 percent) say they never order groceries for pickup or delivery. 
  • There’s been a big discussion as of late into whether schools should be allowed to teach critical race theory and have frank discussions about racism in the U.S. And new polling from the Pew Research Center shows that most Americans believe increased attention to  the history of racism is a good thing for society. Per the poll, 53 percent of U.S. adults think it’s “very” or “somewhat” good for society to be aware of the history of slavery and racism in America, while 26 percent of respondents think it’s bad for society. The survey found wide partisan and racial divides, too. Black (75 percent), Asian American (64 percent) and Hispanic adults (59 percent) were more likely to view heightened attention to this topic as a good thing, while just a little under half of white adults (46 percent) felt the same way. The partisan divide was even more stark, Pew found. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, only 25 percent said greater attention to racism and slavery was good for society, compared to 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. 
  • Democrats and Democratic leaners voters are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to support making college tuition free, according to new polling from the Pew Research Center. Per their survey, 85 percent of Democrats said they favor making college tuition free, compared to just 36 percent of Republicans. Those most strongly supportive of tuition-free college were adults who fall between the ages of 18-29 (73 percent), who have only a high school diploma (69 percent) and who were women (68 percent). There was a racial divide, too: overwhelming majorities of Black (86 percent), Hispanic (82 percent) and Asian American (69 percent) adults supported free college tuition, but only 53 percent of white adults did.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 50.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 43.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of +6.8 percentage points). At this time last week, 50.4 percent approved and 43.3 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of +7.0 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 51.6 percent and a disapproval rating of 42.2 percent (a net approval rating of +9.4 points).