(CNN) - The desire for a more traditionally liberal approach to government -- more regulation, increased spending on public programs etc. -- is at an all-time high, according to calculations by longtime political science professor James Stimson.
"The annual estimate for 2018 is the most liberal ever recorded in the 68-year history of Mood, just slightly higher than the previous high point of 1961," Stimson, now the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote recently of his findings.
"It represents the expected leftward movement in thermostatic reaction to the Presidency of Donald Trump," he added.
Stimson has been monitoring the broad mood of the American public to approaches to government since 1991. Rather than attempting to gauge where people stand on a single issue at a particular moment in time, Stimson aims to take a far longer view -- and to rate his findings on a spectrum from liberal to conservative governance. As The New York Times' Tom Edsall wrote about Stimson's methodology in 2013:
"Stimson, using data from all available commercial and academic surveys, including American National Election Studies and Gallup....The graph tracks swings in public opinion, both to the left and right, using responses to polling questions measuring levels of support for government programs."
Here's what Stimson's latest mood chart looks like as of earlier this month (and here is the data behind it):
It's important to note what this chart shows -- and what it doesn't. Stimson's mood score isn't meant to be predictive of whether a Democratic or a Republican will win a certain election, presidential or otherwise. Instead, it seeks to measure what sort of government people want. Do they want a government that we would traditionally describe as "big" (meaning more involved in peoples' lives) or "small" (lower taxes and less regulation)?
Here's a real-life way to understand how Stimson's mood indicator works -- and how it dovetails with the actions of politicians.
In his 1996 State of the Union speech -- an address seen by many as a framing of his argument for reelection later that year -- Bill Clinton famously/infamously said this:
"We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over."
That declaration was regarded, in retrospect, as Clinton seeking to move the Democratic Party beyond the New Deal and Great Society days and into a new political reality in which government was not always the solution to the problem.
Now, look at Stimson's chart above. The desire for a liberal approach to government had been heading downward since the early 1990s -- cratering right around when Clinton closed the book on so-called "big government." What Stimson's mood score makes clear then is that the public was ripe for just such a declaration -- and Clinton's decision to say what he said (and when he said it) likely contributed to the overall efficacy of his message. (Clinton was overwhelmingly reelected in 1996.)
Stimson's mood rating correlates, generally speaking, to public opinion polling that asks people what role they believe the government should play in their lives. Gallup has been asking that question: "Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?" The responses over time reflect Stimson's mood scale.
In the summer of 2012, 61% said that government was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals while just 34% said the government should be doing more. Stimson's measure of mood shows a bottoming-out in desire for liberal public policy at around that same time.
Ditto the recent rise in the desire for a more liberal approach to government in Stimson's data; a September 2018 Gallup poll showed 50% think the government does too much while 44% think it should do more.
Stimson attributes much of this change to the self-regulating nature of the American people. The desire for a more liberal government tends to rise when a Republican is in the White House and sink when a Democrat resides there. As Stimson told the Daily Tarheel after the 2018 election: "I'm known for the thermostatic idea that mainly public opinion is a reaction to what's happened recently."
In essence, Stimson is saying that an increasing desire in the public for a more liberal policy solution is a function of the fact that the current president is a Republican, not that the current president is Donald Trump. Make sense?
Now, even if the current mood is not rightly attributed to the very Donald Trump-ness of Donald Trump, it doesn't mean that Stimson's findings have no relevance to the ongoing 2020 presidential race. In fact, it suggests that the public might well be more open to large government involvement in things like health care (Medicare for All) or education (free college) than they would have been, say, 10 years ago.