Why Congress is Out of Touch

And how politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Katie Porter manage(d) to be different

Micah Sifry


Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) said something important this week. “Too often, Congress recognizes issues too late,” she told Sarah Ferris of Politico after giving an emotional speech to her fellow Democratic House members about how inflation was affecting her family. Porter is a single mother of three who commutes back and forth from California to DC every week, and despite her congressional salary she’s feeling the pinch. She added, referring to inflation worries, “I had a colleague mention to me, ‘We’re not seeing it in the polls’ … Well, you don’t know what to ask,” she replied.

“We’re not seeing it in the polls.” The fact that most Members of Congress are addicted to polling and use survey data to decide, well, almost everything they do is one of the dirty little secrets of modern politics. And the problem isn’t just that polls only show what a pollster chooses to ask about. Or that the way a question is phrased, or where it falls in a list of questions, can twist results.

It’s that polls themselves are not proof of anything. Public opinion is more fluid than most pollsters like to admit. And rather than slavishly following public opinion, people with big megaphones (like politicians, or Supreme Court Justices) can shift it.

Take the abortion issue. A month ago, asked about their position, 58% of Americans said they were strongly or somewhat pro-choice, compared to 37% who said they were strongly or somewhat pro-life. Now, just a few weeks later but after the explosive leak of a highly controversial draft Supreme Court majority opinion that would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision, the gap between those two groups has widened from 21% to 30%. Now 62% of Americans identify as either strongly or somewhat pro-choice and just 32% as strongly or somewhat pro-life. Even more interestingly, the intensity of identification has shifted, with 44% (up from 38%) saying they are strongly pro-choice and just 20% (down from 24%) saying they are pro-life. (Sourcing here.)