Ep 13: Polling our Evolving Attitudes Towards Healthcare

with Bill McInturff

June 10, 2021

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Bill McInturff
Co-Founder and Partner, Public Opinion Strategies

Bill McInturff is a partner of Public Opinion Strategies, which is one of the nation’s largest political and public affairs survey research firms. The firm has been described as a “GOP powerhouse” and currently represents seven governors, 11 U.S. Senators and 50 Members of Congress. Bill, along with Hart Research Associates, conducts The NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll.

One nationally recognized political reporter described Bill as “one of the smartest, most clear-thinking people in politics.” Another said he “has more influence on Capitol Hill than any other Republican strategist.”

Over a more than 30-year career in survey research and with more than 5,000 projects, he has been devoted to what he describes as “combat message development,” not simply monitoring public opinion, but developing messages to defend and promote client interests on complex public policy issues. The focus of much of Bill’s work has been health care, with the firm having conducted over 1,700 focus groups and more than 1,300 surveys for health care stakeholders.

Over time, people say, 'Yep, I want a government solution.' Then there's an effort to involve more government, and as soon as government gets involved, support for it drops.

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Gary Bisbee  0:06

Healthcare leadership is hard work, but what if you could learn from the most brilliant and influential minds in healthcare and beyond? What would you ask them? Would you ask about politics, policy, or maybe leadership? On The Gary Bisbee Show, I’ll do just that. You’ll hear from healthcare’s most successful leaders and those experts who they listen to, as together we’ll explore how the healthcare economy is transforming.

 

Gary Bisbee  0:36

How will health policy change when over 30% of Americans believe that the healthcare system is not meeting their needs? Bill McInturff has been a political pollster and a political strategist for 30 years. He has an amazing time series of data in how the public views health care, which he shares with us in this conversation. Bill has a succinct formula for assessing where companies fit in healthcare under the care umbrella or financing umbrella. How does the public view these two umbrellas? Where does consumer experience fit? What is the steady state of the public’s perception of hospitals and health insurers? We cover these topics and more. Bill has been the longtime pollster for the NBC Wall Street Journal poll, and he provides an insider’s view of how the topics are selected and the results are covered. Bill is an engaging storyteller with deep knowledge of healthcare politics, which we will explore in this conversation.

 

Gary Bisbee  1:40

Good afternoon, Bill, and welcome.

 

Bill McInturff  1:42 

Thank you, Gary. Appreciate it.

 

Gary Bisbee  1:44

Pleased to have you at this microphone. Why don’t we kick off and learn a little bit more about you? What was your life like growing up, Bill?

 

Bill McInturff  1:53

I have to give my parents credit. It was not that tough. I was raised in affluent suburban Chicago and in suburban Boston. My parents worked very hard, like the classic baby boomer. My dad went to college on the GI loan and changed his life and, of course, we had a very different life as a consequence.

 

Gary Bisbee  2:11

For sure. What’s suburban Chicago?

 

Bill McInturff  2:14

We lived in Glen Ellyn in Deerfield, we lived in Wayland in Massachusetts. Probably, in terms of a little bit different, I didn’t really go to college full time. I sold Fuller Brush at 17 and 19 years old. It was an old household and airbrush product. Then I went to work for a family business, went to school part-time while working for a family business, took the family business over in my early 20s, and then took a year off to travel through Europe and the Mideast. I lived in an Israeli shop cutting peppers and picking flowers and then came back in my middle 20s and started my career in politics working for the very first “George Bush for President” campaign in 1979. That sort of “not go to school, work instead” was a little different than the rest of my peers.

 

Gary Bisbee  3:03

But that makes it more interesting. What came first? Your interest in politics? In polling? In campaigning?

 

Bill McInturff  3:10

Oh, no. It was definitely in politics and in campaigns. When I was in eighth grade and we were doing our American civics, I went to the teacher and said, “How do you become a campaign manager? I want to run campaigns.” My mother was a devoted American history buff. She was an American exceptionalist. She was active and very committed to politics. Of course, the mid-’60s were tumultuous so what I wanted to do from the earliest age was to move to Washington, DC and run campaigns for a living. I’m one of those very lucky people who got to do their life’s dream.

 

Gary Bisbee  3:46

At what point did you realize you could actually make a living out of political polling?

 

Bill McInturff  3:54

Oh, my poor parents. Politics is not for the faint of heart. I worked for the Bush campaign, and then he lost. I ran a congressional campaign, then he lost. Then I did some work in a congressional race, and then you lose your job at the end of the cycle. By this time, you’re 30 years old and your parents say, “Oh my gosh, your friends are lawyers, they’re doctors, they have careers, they’re getting married. You can’t even keep a job!” It’s hard. That’s just part of being in politics, but you’ve got to be prepared for that. What I told my parents was, “Look, if you hang on, if you survive the first five years, you get 10 years, and if you survive 10 years, no one I can see in politics has ever gone broke,” but it’s a learning curve and it’s not a stable way to make a living. The other thing that’s true is my firm has been very successful. God bless America, but my partners and I never thought we would earn this kind of money. No one ever starts running campaigns because they want to make money. If you want to make money, you go to New York City and work in finance, you become a lawyer. There are a lot of ways to make a good living in America. Campaigns in politics are not it.

 

Gary Bisbee  5:05

As I think about polling and the kind of data you collect and advice you provide, some people like to develop data and advise others, some people like to just make decisions, have you ever thought about where you fit on that spectrum?

 

Bill McInturff  5:22

One of the differences between our partnership and our experience compared to a lot of other pollsters, I spent the first six or eight years of my career working for the National Party committees running campaigns. Most of our partners have experience as practitioners before becoming a pollster. Compared to a lot of other firms, we have an enormous amount of ability to look at numbers and then talk about how tactically to execute the numbers. We have a lot of understanding about the mechanics of how to deliver messages as a function of that background. What I tell people is, “Look, when you hire a pollster, the most important thing about polling is the numbers have to be right, and in polling there has to be confidence,” meaning that people in the team have to believe the numbers are right because it has to be the common ground on which to make decisions. Beyond that, if we can, as we try to contribute based on that experience of translating polling to action, that’s a value-added. Fundamentally, the most important thing is that the people in the campaign or your clients believe the number and are willing to use it as a common set point. The thing I enjoy the most is partials, meaning you write these questionnaires, you write a bunch of questions you’ve never done before. I don’t know for sure how they’re going to have voters and adults respond, so my most fun is the first day of partials where—after doing all this work to draft a questionnaire—you see how it works. You see how people respond to those questions and what I’m very good at actually is you get the partial data and then things do not work. Then we have to rewrite the questions. During the survey, we rewrite the questions two times, three times to try to find a positioning that we can demonstrate works better. Taking the partials is (A) I love it, it’s fun, but (B) reworking those partials so our client interest is advanced during the survey is probably the most satisfying thing I like because clients love it. You say, “Here’s day one: you’re losing by 20. We rewrote it. Here’s day two: our position is losing by 12. Here’s day three: we broke even.” Breakeven may not sound like a “win,” but if you’re down 20 with the first set of language and you’re breaking even by the end of the third rewrite, something good is going on and you’re learning a ton about how to communicate your client position.

 

Gary Bisbee  7:54

When you’re starting partials, how many times are you surprised at the results at that point?

 

Bill McInturff  8:03

Fairly often. This is the other thing I tell people. We know a lot about American public opinion, but we ask questions all the time that we’ve never asked before. I’m pretty good at estimating the American public, but I’m not being hired because someone says to me, “Bill, what do you think people will think?” They’re hiring me to go interview hundreds or 1,000s of people to go find out for sure. It would be uberous for me to say, “Oh, I know for sure what Americans are going to think.” That’s uberous. We’re pretty good, but we have a good humility to make sure. That’s our job. We’re listening to public opinion, not trying to say that we can predict or know what it’s going to be.

 

Gary Bisbee  8:42

That’s a really good point. Let’s go back to Public Opinion Strategies. Why did you decide to found the company?

 

Bill McInturff  8:49

We had the great good fortune of working for a guy named Richard Wirthlin who was President Reagan’s pollster. Richard was a gentleman, a very talented pollster. We were very fortunate to be there but, like in every business, my partners and I were a third of the business. We were offered about 5% of equity. We’re pollsters and, as I said to my partners, “Hey, 100% of a whole chunk is bigger than 5% of the whole company. This is not a fair deal.” We tried to negotiate to offer to a joint venture, and we tried some other things given our regard and respect, and that was something that Richard did not want to pursue. He said to us, “Look, the happiest you’re ever going to be is the fact we didn’t sign this deal because you guys are going to do great and I wish you well.” We were approaching 40 and having children. At some point it’s a very practical consideration. The other difference was we felt these were our clients. Of course, they were attracted to Richard Wirthlin who was a very talented guy, but we felt, “Hey, they’re our clients. They’re going to come with us,” and 100% of them did. We had a different perception of the value of the Wirthlin name and so we started in 1991. We did pretty well in 1992 and then in 1994 was the Newt Gingrich revolution. There were 93 new Republican members, Republicans won the house for the first time in 50 years, and our firm did 27 of those 93 new members of the House. Sort of overnight, there became a Republican majority. People wanted to have Republican pollsters and our client base went from good (we had about 10 or 12 members) to 40. We represented 20-25% of the entire US House. Soon-to-be speaker Gingrich used to meet with the national pollsters. It was a coordinated effort and being a very small, one part of that effort and then being part of getting a Republican majority was an incredibly exciting time. It also was a time that rebuilt our firm and put us on the trajectory that we’ve been enjoying ever since.

 

Gary Bisbee  11:06

Let me go back to the very beginning of the founding of POS. Approaching 40, having children, what did you think about the risk of starting up a new venture?

 

Bill McInturff  11:18

The story many do not know: the first person to know that my wife was pregnant was not her mother or my mother or her family, it was my soon-to-be business partner because when he said, “Hey, this is easy for you. You don’t have any kids. Your wife works,” I leveraged her pregnancy and said, “No, no one knows yet, but she’s pregnant, I’m in the same situation.” I made a promise to each of the spouses that we would not finance the business by mortgaging our homes and that we would pay off all loans. Their homes would be safe. We went out and raised capital. We thought it was a good deal, but we ended up raising money from just our family and friends. No actual investors put in money. They thought it was too risky. They said, “Look, you guys will do really well, but this isn’t real money. Real money is when you’re going to go sell a company and I’m going to make three or four times the amount.” My parents and my partner’s parents and our best friends put in the money and then we gave them too good a deal and we bought them out within the first four or five years. They did remarkably well, but we wanted to own 100% of the business. This is scary. We were deep in the hole in the first six months and you have to have the confidence that the business was going to be there in an election year, but those are scary times and that’s part of creating a business.

 

Gary Bisbee  12:53

You talked about political polling, which sounds like the core of the business, but I know you also work for trade groups and associations and so on. How do they use data?

 

Bill McInturff  13:03

Actually, Public Opinion Strategies is a very different firm. About half of our work is our core political business and half is in public policy, and most of that half is in health care. All of these things happened by accident. It was May of 1991. I had just started my business, it was about 10 days old. One of our investors was a health care policy expert. There was a major healthcare meeting coming up, she asked me to talk about public opinion and health care. I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about health care.” She said, “Well, you know a lot about campaigns. Talk about what’s going to happen.” So in May of 1991, I went to this meeting and I said out loud, “Hey, look, you have to understand, the Harris Wofford special election of Pennsylvania is being run around the issue of health care. I just did a campaign in 1990 where a safe Republican incumbent ended up being a tight race because the Democrat was running on a single-payer system. This health care issue is going to be a big deal and, by the way, people like their doctor. We have Marcus Welby, MD. We don’t have insurance agent Jones TV shows and the health insurance industry is going to get stuck. They’re going to be the bad fall guy for this and we’re in the midst of a major revolution about how we deliver health care that’s going to upend the political process.” In the audience that day was the head of the Health Insurance Association of America and he called me and said, “We’d like to hire you,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about health care.” He said, “Well, we know a lot about health care, but we’re getting crushed, so we’ll teach you about health care, but what are we supposed to say in how we defend this industry?” Harris Wofford ended up beating the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. The consultants to that were Jim Carville and Paul Begala. They went on to run Flynn’s campaign in ’92, all about health care, and I ended up working for the Health Insurance Association. We ended up in September of 1993 where President Clinton introduced Clinton Care and his card he held up saying, “This will be all you need to get health care in America.” We did the work for the Health Insurance Association that became the Harry and Louise campaign, which was Harry (the husband) and Louise (who was the wife) at their kitchen table worrying about their bills, saying “there’s got to be a better way.” Now, by today’s standards, those ads were pretty tame but, at the time, it was a big deal. No one had ever run a national TV campaign before on a public policy issue. The other big deal was when Washington, DC then worked on the presumption that Danny Rostenkowski, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was gonna sit in a room with all the same players with all the same interests and make a deal. If you were the skunk in the party (meaning the health insurance industry), if you want anyone outside that process, you were going to get sticked. Inside the health insurance industry, the five major companies left the association because that’s their worldview. I met with one or two of the people and said, “You’re totally missing the mark. That’s not what’s going to happen. You are much safer doing this.” I think the campaign had impact, but the Democrats allotted to collapse. There was no single vote in the Ways and Means Committee, no single vote on the House floor, all of Lyndon Kerr collapsed. Then, at the same time, it led into our political work where we ended up helping elect 27 of the 93 new members of Congress. Heading into 1995, our firm was the folks who worked against Clinton Care with Harry and Louise. We were the folks that had all these new members. We had a substantial week and then we started getting hired by a lot of other healthcare interests because they want to talk to the Republican majority about health care. We learned a lot about the issue and we have a debt of gratitude to the people inside HIA who taught me a lot about health care polling, healthcare issues. That confluence between our Harry and Louise campaign and the ’94 campaign is what created the foundation for our business.

 

Gary Bisbee  17:24

Going back to 1991, how do you view the evolution of the attitudes of our population toward health care?

 

Bill McInturff  17:33

Over this 30 year horizon, there are waves in terms of American public opinion. When you look at the waves, the one thing I see over time is we have this very deceptively simple question: “Is the healthcare system meeting the needs of you and your family?” When over 30% of Americans start saying, “No, it doesn’t. It’s not meeting my needs.” We’ve had major healthcare battles in this country: HMO in the late nineties and then some of the Obama efforts to expand coverage, they’ve all been around the point at which more than 30% say, “The healthcare system doesn’t meet my needs.” The other thing I’ve seen happen over time is people say, “Yep, I want a government solution. I want more government.” Then there’s this effort to involve more government and, as soon a government gets involved, support for it drops. I’ve seen that happen in the early 90s, mid-90s, around Obamacare. Who knows? We’ll see if it happens during the Biden administration. The third thing you see is, frankly, hospitals. Hospitals are a public-facing consumer product. The thing that’s been true during this time period is they have high public esteem and it’s higher now post-COVID-19. For all the challenges the hospitals had for public policy, they always have great numbers because, for the most part, most of us go to a hospital and great things happen. In health care, there are two umbrellas: Are you under the money umbrella, or are you under the care umbrella? If you’re under the care umbrella, you’re set. That care umbrella is doctors, nurses, and other parts of our healthcare system. If you’re under the money umbrella (which tends to be the health insurance folks), you have troubles. Hospitals are a little bit of both. The other thing that has happened over time is that the pharmaceutical industry has had its ups and downs over these 30 years. Deservedly, they’re getting the best reaction, the best numbers. They’ve gone a long, long, long time, as the American public recognizes. You might be frustrated with the administration of the vaccines but, hey, we have vaccines. We have two of them, soon to be three. That happened incredibly quickly because they’ve been an incredibly competent industry. It’s been a reminder for millions of people who are saying, “Oh, yeah, well, I grumble about prices, I grumble about this, but yeah, they create miracles that save lives.” The pharmaceutical industry has had a tick, tick, tick, tick up in 2020 and all accelerating as a function of what they’ve helped us all do with these vaccines.

 

Gary Bisbee  20:21

Let’s go back to your formulation of some of the companies and organizations that fit under the care umbrella, some fit under the financial umbrella. Hospitals are straddling the two to some degree. For the last year, hospitals have increased in the public opinion, their view of them. Do you think hospitals will keep this public perception that they’re doing a great job? Will that be useful to them politically?

 

Bill McInturff  20:54

A few things. Yes, there’ll be some sustained progress even post-COVID where those numbers will stay in place. Yes, hospitals are in an advantageous place, including their request for more money. We’re also at a point where we’ve been working the support for hospitals getting more money. Is that a high watermark over a 20 year period? When I talk about these long waves over these 30 years, I don’t know, but hospitals will—sooner or later—drop down to what has been a steady-state over a 30 year period. The point I’m making is that steady-state is still really attractive. For all the pressures hospitals are under, the consumer experience most Americans get is extraordinarily positive. As a consequence of that, hospitals have endured public policy attacks because of the esteem in which they’re held.

 

Gary Bisbee  22:10

Just a couple of questions on the mechanics of polling. You hear a lot about the fact that people now have cell phones, not landline phones. At least a lot more people have only cell phones and I’m assuming it’s harder for you to survey them. How is that playing out in terms of the conduct of the polls?

 

Bill McInturff  22:34

We’re at a point where these are challenges. This is an industry that has substantial challenges. We can get people, it’s the cooperation rate. It’s people’s willingness to do the surveys that have shifted and changed over time. Interesting note: it’s the CDC that tracks cell phone use in America. Because they’re in charge of the responsibility of public health, they’re the ones that track how you get ahold of people. They tell us that 62.5% of the country has only a cell phone. We are very capable of contacting people on a cell phone. However, because of laws that were passed 20 years ago, you cannot automatically use a machine to dial that number. You have to do it by hand, so the labor cost of calling people on cell phones is two to four times of the cost of using an automated dialer where you wait ’till someone picks up the phone on a landline, so polling has gotten very expensive. 20 or 30 years ago, there was one way to do polling that worked. It was by the phone. Today, we’re in a world where there’s phone polling and internet panels. There are millions of people who sign up to take surveys online. We have some companies that created their own internet panels where they randomly attracted people to the panel. We have river polling, like Survey Monkey. Survey Monkey does two or three million polls a day for all these little organizations and then some chunk of them are asked, “Hey, would you stay on and do another poll?” Also, we now text cell saying, “Hey, we’re texting you. Would you go to our web page and do the survey?” Or we’re emailing to web. Then there’s something called IVR. You automatically get this on your landline, it’s been pre-recorded, you punch numbers. That’s eight different ways to collect data. The industry is trying to compensate for this lack of cooperation by a range of methodologies that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. All of them are being stretched or strained a bit and all of them are increasing the price. We have done work for the CDC, we’ve done work for HHS. Those are clients of whom I say, “Guess what? They work for the people who print the money so, if you work for people who print the money, then methodologically, they can afford stuff that no other private client can afford.” Nobody would make those trade-offs and pay that kind of money in terms of a very pristine methodology. As an industry, I think we are doing a good job of trying to represent public opinion, but there’s no question: it’s getting harder and there’s no one clear, good answer for the best way to do this at this point.

 

Gary Bisbee  25:23

There has been some criticism in the last couple of elections about the projections of a particular race. Is that a trend or is this just an exception? How has that been coming about?

 

Bill McInturff  25:37

They’re a little bit different. In the 2016 campaign, the average polls nationally said Hillary Clinton would win by 3.5 points. She won by 2.1. In the midst of all that stuff going on, if you’re a point and a half off, you’re doing a pretty good job. I think it’s more of an issue in 2020. The average poll said that Biden would win by seven points. He won by four and a half. That’s a bigger miss than we’ve seen in polling for years and years, and I’m really wrestling with “is this a Donald Trump phenomenon? Or is it these issues about cooperation rates and surveys, who we can reach?” I’m torn because the polling in 2018 was right on. The polling in the Georgia special election in 2021 was right on. We feel really good about our work for all our initiative campaigns. We feel really good about our private work for our individual political clients. There’s one guy that has been a little bit of a problem and that’s how do you survey Donald Trump? As an industry, two things: (1) everybody has their own association. We have a National Association of Public Opinion Research. They did a post-analysis of 2016, they’ll be doing one of 2020. That’ll come out this fall. Then internally, NBC and Wall Street Journal. We’re going to be doing our own post-analysis. It’s frustrating for people because we need the voter files. In other words, you go to vote, your town or city or county know for sure you voted, they sent it to your state, and then the state sends it, and then we collect it nationally, but we need to know who actually voted so we can compare who we thought was going to vote to who really voted to see if there’s somebody we’re missing and if this was a demographic miss. On the other hand, and this would be the not good part, we have the demographics right but I, for example, a now over 65 Republican guy who is a Republican primary voter do the survey. The entire survey was built on this premise: If I’ve talked to Bill McInturff and he’s over 65 and a Republican primary voter and he’s a man and he has these demographics, he lives in this neighborhood, he’ll be a lot like his neighbor who’s also a 65 Republican primary voter who we couldn’t reach on the phone. If there’s evidence that we interviewed the right demographics, I still think there’s still a miss and it means that there’s been a breakdown. The Bill McInturff equivalent in the neighborhood who refused to do the survey is different than I am because I did the survey, and that’s a challenge. That’s the core challenge to our industry and it’s one that people have every right to ask of this industry. I think there will be an answer, but there’s a reason we can’t answer that on November 12. It takes months of work to give everyone an answer, so feel free to contact me in the spring and fall and we’ll give you an update about what we’ve learned and how much work is being done to make sure what we do works better.

 

Gary Bisbee  28:39

We may come back for another interview. That’d be terrific. You’ve mentioned the NBC Wall Street Journal poll, which you started back in 1995, what was behind you starting that poll? What was the thinking behind it?

 

Bill McInturff  28:56

I was not there for the start. There’s a guy named Peter Hart from Hart Research Associates. He started the poll, but he started the poll with a different pollster named Bob Teeter, a different republican pollster. Bob Teeter was doing the polling for George H.W. Bush. He was a famous republican pollster. The start of this was that Peter and Bob represented the very best of the person pollsters, Republican or Democrat. The feeling was, “Look, NBC Wall Street Journal: as opposed to you hiring your own internal research department, you have access now to two different major research firms, both of bipartisan expertise and it’s from practitioners, people who are doing campaigns for a living, and that would distinguish the poll.” So Bob and Peter started it with Tim Russert and Al Hunt. The poll has been very successful. It’s been historically incredibly accurate. People who do this for a living read the poll because of the question structure. There are differences because we bring that partisan and practitioner point of view. Bob Teeter unfortunately died and I was hired as his replacement in 2004, so it’s been 16 years. It’s a very powerful document because you have 25, 30 years of trend data. As a consequence, if you have that much trend data over time with the same kind of people doing it, what you learn about the major shift in American attitudes in this country and your capacity to report it and have that reporting be part of how NBC and Wall Street Journal communicate this country what’s changing, all of that has been made a really positive impact. That’s the way that both of those companies feel about that work.

 

Gary Bisbee  30:54

The time series feels like it would be very valuable. Do you specifically write on the time series on the evolution over this 25 or 30 year period of time?

 

Bill McInturff  31:07

I’m not a writer. I’m a talker, but this is why it helps to have NBC and Wall Street Journal, two major news organizations. You admire their capacity to take this information and translate it in their own medium. For example, we did this work looking at shifts and social attitudes about gay marriage. We went back and looked at how many years it took for a majority of Americans to approve interracial marriage. That was 57 years. How many years did it take to approve of this kind of change? Our attitudes about gay marriage changed in 12 years to be from a majority opposed to majority support. There’s no precedent for major social attitudes to change like that. We’re watching very different attitudes around Generation Z and millennials. They’re going to be a very different generation. One other one that’s of interest to me: In 2004, 42% of the country said they attended church or a religious service once a week or more. 15% said they didn’t attend any. In this last election, the lines crossed. More people said they did not attend any religious service than said they attend weekly or more. All of that has political consequence. We’ve also looked at demographic shift in terms of the party composition, who’s a republican or democrat, who’s a liberal or conservative. These are not fixed and these are things that have shifted a lot. Understanding those changes and reporting those changes is a core part of what happens that makes this poll a little bit different in terms of its focus.

 

Gary Bisbee  32:46

How are topics chosen or selected?

 

Bill McInturff  32:48

We’re also very fortunate because we’re working with NBC and Wall Street Journal, so you’re working with these really terrific news organizations, so Chuck Todd, Mark Marine at NBC, Jerry Sod, Aaron Sytner at Wall Street Journal have something we call “TIMS,” which is memos from the client for what they think we should cover. There’s a nice combination. The clients say, “Look, here’s what we see as the major stories this month. Here’s what we’re going to cover.” A lot of times they have special editions coming up, they have special focuses, they want more data, so they provide their information, we provide our thoughts of what we’re seeing, we draft a survey, and then they go through it. Then there’s this not easy process to agree on language between our polling team on our side, the Hart polling team, and then agree on language with NBC and Wall Street Journal. That’s a lot of cooks. It takes a lot of patience. That’s occasionally irritating for all involved, but all involved have a respect for each other and a tolerance to understand that this process generally works and it has created stronger, better questions because of a one-day battle for what word to use and how to do a question. There’s a tolerance for that process because of the regard and respect across that team.

 

Gary Bisbee  34:18

Let’s take the issue of partisanship if we could. I’m sure your data shows that partisanship has been increasing over time. What’s your view of that? Is there a pathway out of this highly partisan time we’re in?

 

Bill McInturff  34:34

Just tolerance for longer answers because this has been “partisan silos,” hardening partisan silos. First, you cannot blame Trump. Trump was the end of the process, not anywhere near the beginning of the process. Political scientists measure polarization based on how one party rates its own president compared to the other party. Ronald Reagan was the most polarizing president in history until Bill Clinton, and then he was the most polarizing president in history until George W. Bush, and then Obama, and then finally Trump. Through 30 years, this trend has been going on. Then in terms of power, how powerful is this trend in terms of straight-ticket voting? In the 80s and 90s and even the 2000s, we had 150 to 200 congressional districts that would vote one way for president and a different way for the house representatives. Today, right now, that’s 16 seats. That’s it. Out of 435 seats, we only have 16 that voted differently for president and the member of Congress. That’s extraordinary. What’s causing that I believe are a few things. First, redistricting because both parties have an incentive to try to create as many safe seats as possible so we don’t have swing seats. Members worry about their primaries, not the general election. Then two, the other extraordinary change is media, media access, social media, and how we get information. Most people now read only from a news source that fundamentally agrees with their position and reinforces their point of view. I have the great good fortune of being in a very happy marriage, but she’s a very progressive woman, so I worked really hard. I read Huffington Post. It’s my job. I try to read across stuff but still—when we’re doing news reports for the day and she’s telling me what she’s read from how she gets her information and what’s been highlighted—every single night, it’s a different world. She’s got her, “Boy, I’m really upset today. I’m reading about X and it’s a very different world than a Republican news source and all of that.” All of that locks us into place. I respect President Biden. I respect his call for civility. One other incredible number: first lady Melania Trump trumpeted 44 negative in the first month from Democrats. Dr. Biden, 55% negative with Republicans on a positive/negative scale. She’s not a controversial figure and she has a 55 negative. If the first lady is a 55 negative to start administration, that’s all you need to know about how partisan this country has become. Despite the regard for President Biden’s efforts and attempts, I don’t think that that’s going to change anytime soon. The other depressing thing I used to say is it would take like a 9/11 or some national emergency to pull this country together. We’re in the midst of a 100-year pandemic and in that 100-year pandemic the Wall Street Journal was, “Oh my God, we’re in day 60 and this has already become a partisan issue.” Within 60 days, Democrats believed X, Republicans believe Y and they were totally different. The gap between how Republicans and Democrats feel about the Coronavirus is a relative threat. It’s extraordinary. We’re all mammals, we’re all human. I saw no reason when this first started why this would instantly within two months become a highly charged partisan issue. My mantra being “a national emergency might pull this country together,” at least for the first attempt at that model with the pandemic was a total abject failure and incredibly quickly became another red and blue issue.

 

Gary Bisbee  38:30

Let’s move on from that depressing topic, which it is for sure. This has been terrific, Bill, you sharing your wisdom with us. Let’s go to political campaign to wrap up. What do you enjoy most about working on a political campaign?

 

Bill McInturff  38:55

People who work in campaigns are not always deep thinkers, but they get stuff done. There is an energy, there’s a pace, there’s quick decision making, and there’s a level of action that’s really pretty cool and pretty addictive. Also, number two, emotionally. It’s like actors. It’s like a shared family. When you do your first campaign and you’re all cranked up at midnight, you can’t talk to normal people. The only people who are still up are the other people in campaign at midnight. You talk to each other and there’s a bond that is so much more powerful than normal life. Then three, I do this work because I am an American exceptionalist. I believe in America and I believe what I’m doing contributes to the public good. Overall, that’s how I feel. I think my clients and what we do and the difference my clients make is really, really important. I feel engaged because I feel like, in John McCain’s words, I am doing something bigger than myself. Then number four, there’s nothing better than winning. In terms of normal life versus campaign life: In normal life, you don’t have a day where the world tells you every two years whether you won or lost. Sure, it’s crushing when people you really care about lose, but the high that you get when you win is difficult to replace. Put all that together, and that’s why I’m a lifetime political junkie and never gonna move off. You don’t find those things in normal life. You find those things among a set of people, the famous Henry IV Band of Brothers and now I will say band of brothers and sisters. People are also surprised that a lot of my friends are Democrats, but they’re Democrats who do what I do for a living. It’s the same personality, they’re just on a different side. The other thing about our country is you have to believe in this process. I believe in America’s general goodness. There’s a Winston Churchill quote: “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.” The process our country goes through to resolve and come to conclusion, this country has a capacity for peaceful change that is not like anything in the history of the world. This country’s capacity for positive change is a wonder, it’s something that is powerful. I believe in our capacity for change and I think that the dialogue that my clients create around that has incredible good to come to public consensus in a way that allows us to change as a country. Our country was rightfully proud of electing a Black American president. What are the country’s done that in terms of how quickly attitudes have changed? This issue about gay marriage. You don’t change major cultural stuff in 12 years. This is America. We change, and we change peacefully. That’s a powerful part of a process that I am a small part of that provides meaning to what I do and something I enjoy.

 

Gary Bisbee  42:02

We’re going to wrap up here. That’s just a terrific sentiment to wrap up on. We appreciate your time today. We appreciate your wisdom. We’d love to have you back at another point in the future.

 

Bill McInturff  42:13

Kind of do that. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for your patience with my long answers. If I’m on with Chuck Todd, he gives me this stare of death meaning “Bill, we’re on freaking TV. Wrap it up, wrap it up, wrap it up. You can’t talk that long,” so thank you for the free forum here on your show where I got to do a little more Bill-like chitchat and give a little longer answer. Thank you, Gary.

 

Gary Bisbee  42:38

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