Pollster Mark Penn Says Voters Believe in a Bipartisan Future

The former Clinton adviser analyzed his company’s findings in a conversation with GSPM founding dean Christopher Arterton.

Founding GSPM Dean Christopher Arterton and pollster Mark Penn presented the poll remotely.
Founding GSPM dean Christopher Arterton and pollster Mark Penn discuss the implications of a poll rating Americans' faith in their institutions.
September 21, 2020

By Ruth Steinhardt

American voters may be discouraged about the current state of the country, but recent polling suggests they have faith in America’s future and its institutions, Bill and Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn said Thursday.

And despite increasingly deep political divides, a majority of voters believe the best way to govern is through bipartisanship and a robust system of checks and balances.

Mr. Penn, chair of polling company HarrisX, broke down the findings in the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management’s Society of Presidential Pollsters Endowed Lecture. The conversation was moderated by Christopher Arterton, professor emeritus of political management and founding dean of GSPM.

“We decided in this poll to take a step back and look at how our Constitutional framework is working and being received, and to see where today’s public stands on that,” Mr. Penn said. “I don’t think there’s any question that voters are down in the dumps about our country today, but they still believe in America tomorrow, and to me that’s probably the most important finding that comes out of the poll.”

HarrisX ran the poll of 2,000 registered voters in the first week of September for the Society of Presidential Pollsters, an organization created by GSPM in 2010 following a generous donation from Mark Penn that archives polling and public opinion analysis records from, and pays homage to, the select group of people that have served as pollsters to the President of the United States.

While some results ran along predictable partisan lines, Mr. Harris said pollsters encouraged respondents to think about institutions like the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court more broadly and not to respond based on their approval or disapproval of the offices’ current occupants. Most respondents said the institutions would improve with relatively minor structural reforms, not revolutionary ones.

“I was kind of probing whether or not people really wanted to tear up or redo the system that we have, and their answer, pretty much, is no,” Mr. Penn said.

Of the three branches of government, the Supreme Court had the highest approval rating, suggesting that voters believe it is functioning as intended. However, a majority of respondents believed that justices should serve a fixed term or until a decided retirement age, rather than for life as they currently do.

The lowest-rated branch of government is Congress, which 70 percent of those polled said is not working as an institution. Respondents tended to blame the gridlock on increasing consolidation of power by Congressional leaders, something Mr. Penn said bipartisan committees like the House Problem Solvers Caucus are currently striving to correct. Eighty-one percent of respondents said bipartisan support is necessary for major policy changes, but 83 percent said the bipartisan system in America has broken down.

Respondents also overwhelmingly said they would keep the filibuster, which they believed to be an essential check on a majority party’s power in the ebb and flow of bipartisan rule.

“They would keep the filibuster as an important check on power, because they fundamentally believe in checks and balances and bipartisanship as the right way to govern the country,” Mr. Penn said. “I was surprised at how strongly that came through.”

While 64 percent of respondents said they think the country is currently on the wrong track, 69 percent said they had “quite a lot” or “some” confidence in the future of the United States.

Mr. Penn said he was particularly interested in and surprised by the ethnic breakdown on responses to that question. Forty four percent of Black respondents and 40 percent of Hispanic respondents said they had little or no confidence in the country’s future. But of respondents from other minority groups, just 32 percent had little or no faith. (White respondents were the most optimistic; only 27 percent registered low or zero confidence.)

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, an election, a bad economy—you would expect people to be negative or even harshly negative, and they are negative about the times, but not about the future,” Mr. Penn said.

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