Cut the checks

Polls show that Joe Biden's American rescue plan is popular, and it could reshape how we think about politics and the economy.

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And now, the American Rescue Plan and its very big implications.


Americans really like when you give them money.

If there is one lesson that will endure from this era, even if and when things go back to a “normal” state, it is that. Perhaps that should have been obvious. After all, the Universal Basic Income platform that was foisted onto the national stage by Andrew Yang has been gaining traction for the past several years. But it took a once-in-a-century pandemic to put the concept into clear action.

Millions of qualifying Americans are soon set to get a third round of direct payments—$1,400 for individuals and $2,800 for couples at the baseline—as Congress debates President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. There’s been a decent amount of polling around the plan, but this recent one from Monmouth University had two eye-popping numbers:

  • 53% of Americans think the $1,400 amount is about right—but 28% say these payments should be even bigger.

  • 68% of Americans say Congress should pass the bill, even if it only passes on a party-line vote, rather than adjust the amount of the checks. (Translation: Democrats, pass this bill.)

“Bipartisanship sounds great on paper, but a $1,400 check sounds even better,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute.

This is interesting in several different contexts. First, Democrats are basically bending over backwards to do that thing they always seem to do so well: get in their own way.

On Wednesday, Biden agreed to a push from centrist Democratic senators that limits the eligibility for the checks. Ryan Cooper notes that this will affect approximately 17 million people who previously got checks. It’s not unreasonable to assume that many of those people listened during the Georgia Senate runoff campaign and bought in to the promise that if Democrats won, they would be getting another check.

The second context relates to the first but is a bit broader in scope. Though we don’t yet know what the final bill will look like as it makes its way through the Senate and a reconciliation process, the American Rescue Plan is one of the most popular bills we’ve seen in quite some time.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about several different things: Why almost every single Republican is almost certainly going to vote against it; why Democrats are hemming and hawing over some of the most popular details; and how the end result could affect some of the assumptions we have about the early throes of the Biden presidency.

This is not 2009

The Monmouth poll cited above finds 62% of Americans support the American Rescue Plan overall. That’s actually one of the lower levels of support it’s had in scattered polling.

A sampling:

  • Morning Consult: 76% support

  • Quinnipiac University: 68% support

  • New York Times/SurveyMonkey: 72% support

All three of those polls also found a surprisingly strong level of support from Republicans—according to Morning Consult, 60% of GOP respondents said they at least “somewhat support” the bill.

All of which is to say that this isn’t 2009’s stimulus plan. That’s fairly remarkable, considering the popularity of then-incoming President Barack Obama and how divided we have become as a country since.

In 2009, most polls taken before or just after passage of that stimulus plan showed that narrow majorities of Americans favored it. But one New York Times poll also found two-thirds of respondents expected more money would be needed to pull the country out of that recession.

Translation: They should’ve gone bigger.

In fact, a Pew Research Center survey conducted a year after passage of the 2009 law found that two-thirds of Americans didn’t think the package helped.

Republicans were fairly effective in their opposition to that law. The nature of that package made it much easier to do so. They found a lot of “pork” because that is easier to find in a bill granting money for specific projects. Lawmakers came out with cheekily titled reports about “wasteful spending.” Solyndra, the failed solar startup that got stimulus money, became a national issue during the 2012 election.

Things are different now. The American Rescue Plan doesn’t have as much of those kinds of programs. So far, Republicans have really only keyed in on money that was to be allocated for the BART transportation system, the fifth-largest rapid-transit system in the country. (That money was removed from the bill under the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling.) And they aren’t even really keyed in on the issue overall—Republicans and right-leaning media outlets are more focused on, uh, other things these days:

A good chunk of the package’s cost is for programs that would be felt pretty directly by millions of Americans, like extended unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and school funding. An expanded child tax credit would do a lot to reduce child poverty. And about one-quarter of its cost would go directly toward those oh-so-popular stimulus checks. (A minimum wage hike to $15, which also sees consistent majority support—but less support than other provisions—also seems likely to be out of the final version after the parliamentarian’s ruling.)

As my friend and former colleague Joe Weisenthal has written and discussed extensively over the past few years, people (the public and lawmakers) generally don’t care as much about the budget deficit anymore. As Joe wrote in the link above, people feel the benefit from stimulus checks much more quickly than stimulus projects, which take longer to make an impact.

And the mood is different—while Obama was already at this point in his presidency pivoting to austerity, Biden has signaled an appetite for more stimulus as necessary.

Go big or go home

Despite the general goodwill toward the bill so far, there still seems to be a general feeling that is summed up well by Slate’s Jordan Weissmann:

The repercussions of the final product are enormous for the future, both politically and practically. If it’s viewed as a success, especially coming out of a pandemic that has touched literally every American in some way, there will be lots of appetite for bigger, bolder packages like it in the future.

And even though I’m hesitant to project so far into the future, the bill’s success (or failure) could also reshape (or confirm) many assumptions we have about more immediate political implications. It could affect what happens in the 2022 midterms and the legislation that can pass in Biden’s first term.

The pandemic has been the only issue that matters for many Americans over the past year, with at least a few more months to go. How Americans view the leaders who get the country on the other side of the crisis could alter perceptions for years to come. Democrats have an ambitious agenda, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that much, if not all, hinges on this one.

Which is why I keep going back to one number from the Monmouth poll: 68. That’s the percentage of people who said Democrats should go ahead and pass the bill themselves rather than cut the amount of checks.

As Monmouth’s Murray said: “[O]ne lesson from 2009’s recovery bill is that you don’t get much credit if it is seen as a half measure.”

Thanks for reading Margin of Error. If you have any tips, comments, or insights about polling, email me at bplogiurato@gmail.com, or find me on Twitter @BrettLoGiurato.

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