Biden’s Pollster Bares All

joe biden
Photo: Oliver Douliery/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
September 5, 2022

John Anzalone, one of the top pollsters for frontline Democrats, is one of the most influential insiders in town: he was Joe Biden’s chief pollster on the 2020 campaign, and polls for both the Democratic National Committee and Build Back Together, the vehicle that promotes the president’s policies. This cycle, Anzalone is working on the reelection campaigns for Governors Gretchen Whitmer, in Michigan, and Steve Sisolak, in Nevada, as well as Rep. Dina Titus, also in Nevada. His firm Impact Research polls for the Senate campaigns of Tim Ryan in Ohio and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, among others. He has also conducted polls for Southern Democrats like North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. So he has his finger on the pulse of the electorate, and understands the issues underlying the recent political wind-shift. 

In our recent 30-minute conversation, he said I’d “exhausted” him with questions about Biden’s future and the left’s chances in 2022 and beyond. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tara Pameri: Has the Mar-a-Lago search reshaped the dynamics for 2024?  

John Anzalone: No, but I think it reinforces the feelings of Republicans and independent-leaning Republicans, who are kind of disgruntled and disgusted with Trump and his antics—whether it’s The Big Lie or whether it’s January 6th and his role in that. What they learned during the January 6th committee hearings, which I actually think is significant, is underestimated in a lot of ways. We’re seeing this in elections where there’s people who used to be Republican now identify as independents. We see that there’s Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who are voting for third party candidates. I think we’re going to see a lot more third-party candidate votes this cycle because of people disgruntled with Trump. I mean, there’s a reason that Republicans aren’t able to take advantage of the bad political environment, and Trump is one of those reasons. 

So you don’t think it’s a mistake for Democrats to emphasize the search at Mar-a-Lago? 

I don’t feel like Democrats are really out there emphasizing it. It’s not like it’s on TV ads. But you never stop learning stuff about Donald Trump, and the fact is the January 6th commission exposed a lot of that. You learned what he thought about Mike Pence. You learned that he knew that there were armed people in the crowd. You just learned all of this stuff and now they’re learning that he literally had classified documents, and probably purposely moved them, et cetera. So you never stop learning about the guy, and it just keeps getting worse, and every time he just loses a few more people. Right?

So you think the January 6 committee has changed minds? 

Past presidents always get a bounce [after they leave office], but Trump’s favorability has gotten worse. There’s no doubt that it has hurt Trump. Biden’s numbers have gotten better in the last five weeks, a point each week in the averages. And since the Jan. 6 hearings and Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s numbers have gotten worse. So I mean, it’s real.

Why do you think Biden’s numbers have gotten better in the past five weeks?  

He’s gotten a heck of a lot done for America, right? I mean, these were really important things—CHIPS [which provided $280 billion for high-tech research and manufacturing] and bringing the supply chain back to America and all the things that were in the Inflation Reduction Act. It shows him as a president who was getting things done on the agenda that he came into office for. 

Some people chalk up his rising approval ratings to falling gas prices. 

No, I think it’s bigger than that. It’s much more about him fulfilling his campaign promises and his agenda when he got into office. How many American presidents can say that they lowered drug prices for seniors, and capped their drug prices, and finally made big corporations pay their fair share in taxes and, you know, actually did something about energy independence? I think it’s absolutely about him getting real things done for American families. Part of the bad branding for Democrats over the last year is we kinda haven’t been able to get things done, and this shows that we’re getting things done. I just did a poll for a female member of Congress, out west in a very competitive district, and when we said, what are you hearing about so-and-so? Literally, the I.R.A. came up in the open-ended response. People are hearing about it, there’s no doubt about that.

Even though they’re not experiencing the benefits yet? 

I think that is a myth and a bad D.C. narrative, that if something isn’t happening immediately that you don’t get any benefit from it. The fact is, what’s differentiating Democrats and Republicans is that we actually have an agenda and we have an agenda that’s going to help people. We’re seeing two dynamics right now—one, the abortion issue is playing a major role. I think when Roe was overturned, the narrative in D.C., including from me, was that it’s not going to be a game-changer, but it’s going to play a minor role, a marginal role. 

Now we’re two months into this and we’re already seeing the difference between hypothetical and reality. We saw some of this in focus groups after the leak, but before it was actually overturned, there were a lot of people and a lot of women who didn’t know how it was going to change in their state—they just thought it was going to be the same. And then when they learned that there’s a trigger law, and then they learned what some of the Republican candidates were saying, it changed how people thought. And so I think today, everyone, including Republicans, are seeing that this is a much bigger issue and a much more major component in the political environment than we had even anticipated two months ago when it happened. It is dominating so many races because it is not just about the extreme positions that Republicans have. It also signals that, if they have those positions of banning abortion in cases of rape and incest, that they are probably extreme on other issues that would make people uncomfortable.

So all of a sudden we’re on the offensive with a really great positive message on stuff that we’re actually doing, and we have a contrasting message where Republican are completely out of step with public opinion on major issues like abortion, plus they voted against transactional things that matter to voters, like making companies pay their fair share of taxes. 

So that’s one big thing. But if you look back at the second big thing, on May 2nd when the SCOTUS opinion was leaked, it was just the beginning of the Republican primaries. And so what did all these candidates do? They just tried to out-beat each other on how far you can get to the right. So you have Tudor Dixon who is literally on camera, saying… look at the TV ads, the interviewer says “Do you want to ban abortion in cases of rape and incest?” She says, “Yes.” [Nota bene: Anzalone is working on Dixon opponent Governor Whitmer’s campaign.] 

So you know, you have Blake Masters in Arizona and Joe Lombardo in Nevada getting way whacky; Ted Budd in North Carolina saying that the January 6 rioters at the Capitol were patriots. When the Roe ruling was leaked, at the same time of the massacres of Buffalo and Uvalde, all of these Republicans went way right—none of this background check shit and this bump stock ban. It was the same thing with Trump, defending January 6 and the insurrectionists.

The reality is some of these people make Richard Murdock and Todd Akin look like pikers on the abortion issue, right? They sound like Todd Akin and Richard Murdock on steroids, when you take a look at someone like Tudor Dixon or Blake Masters. It’s defining some of those races, and putting those Republicans on complete defensive and allowing us to do positive stuff. But it is a much bigger issue than I think, any Democrat or Republican, insider or consultant, or quite frankly candidate, probably imagined that it was going to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if you take a look at every major campaign and 80 percent of those campaigns have run an abortion ad on a Republican opponent.

So you’re saying that Democrats should run on abortion? 

No, I didn’t say that. I think it’s becoming a much bigger issue than we thought it would be at the time. 

What should they run on? 

What Gretchen Whitmer (in Michigan) runs on is different from what Stacey Abrams (in Georgia) runs on. What Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (in Nevada) runs on is different from what Cheri Beasley (in North Carolina) runs on. They live in different states. They have different backgrounds, they have different accomplishments. The one thing that Democrats have that Republicans really don’t have is they can talk about their agenda. They can talk about what they want to do for the American people, right? And Republicans, like, they do the check list of, Oh I’m for America, keep it safe, no immigrants. They do these bullet point ads, but no one’s running on Rick Scott’s agenda.

In your polling, what are the negatives associated with Democrats? 

It’s not really what I want to sit here and lay out and talk about, right? Talk to a Republican pollster and let them lay out what our vulnerabilities are. I’m not going to sit there and show my cards. 

They would probably say the Democrats are soft on crime. 

Well we have better proof points and the facts. Almost everyone’s for increasing funding for the police. Almost everyone’s for accountability and true police reform. I mean, President Biden just laid out his agenda which I think is most Democrats’ agenda on crime and getting violent guns off the streets. We have plenty of tools in the tool kit to fight off the crime issue among Republicans. And if that’s all they got, you know, then I’m feeling pretty, pretty good about 2022.

What kind of numbers do you think Biden needs to see to run again? 

No, not a topic. He’s President of the United States. He’s literally one the most successful modern presidents in terms of legislation, and all indications are that he’s running, and he deserves to run because he’s done an amazing job as president. There’s not a calculus or diagnostic in my head or anyone’s head about what that means. 

So he would run even if the numbers weren’t there? 

I don’t know. All I can say is he is literally the most successful modern-day president in terms of what he’s done legislatively for this country. He deserves to run for re-election if he wants to run for re-election, and I hope he does. 

How does he stack up against some of the Republicans right now? Is there anyone that’s stronger than Trump or weaker against him? 

I haven’t tested it. I can’t go down this lane. 

Do you think Democrats could win the House back? 

I think that right now all the old rules get thrown out the window. We’re in the most unique election cycle in my 30 years of working in politics. I literally went from saying it was the worst election cycle I’ve ever seen to now it being one of the most competitive election cycles I’ve ever seen. Republicans should have a plus-ten generic ballot advantage. They’re dead even. A lot of things have happened to change that, and I would not be surprised on election night of anything. Plus, I think that we know that there’s going to be so many close elections, that we’re not going to know on election night, maybe if the House is one way or the other, or if the Senate is one way or the other. Nothing is off the table right now. I really believe that. 

Who are the undecided voters or the persuadable voters in this election?

They tend to be independent and under 50. There’s a larger universe of undecided and persuadables that are people of color and I think that we keep forgetting that. They are not a homogeneous group. 

Do you think the Dobbs decision will still play in 2024? 

Yes, it will. Because there’s a third of women in America who can’t get an abortion right now in their state, and it’s only going to grow. We’ve gone back in time and women aren’t going to put up with it. It’s going to keep being an issue because Republicans keep nominating the most extreme candidates who believe that abortion should be banned even in the case of rape and incest and sometimes in the life of the mother. And the fact is that [represents] 10 percent of the universe of America. They are archaic.