The Cuba Embargo and Public Opinion

Returning to blogging after a long hiatus and a pretty busy semester in which I actually got some research done!  Still recovering from the experience; it was exhausting, as it turns out.

As most newsreaders have heard by now, Obama will be normalizing relations with Cuba and attempting to end the fifty-year embargo.   On the substance, hard to see how it’s a bad move.  The embargo has gone on for long enough and the Castro regime seems as solid as ever, and it’s difficult to see what continuing the embargo for another decade or two could possibly accomplish.  More interesting to me are the domestic political consequences; everyone seems to have an opinion on whether or not this will destroy the Democratic chances to win Florida in 2016.  Two bigger points and one modest prediction.

First, reactions to events are poorly predicted by pre-event polling.  Most of the commentary tends to make reference to existing polling, which in this case shows an even split amongst Cuban-Americans on the question of whether or not the US should end the embargo.  The problem is that this is often a very poor predictor of whether or not polls taken next week – or in 2016 – will reflect a similar split amongst Cuban-Americans.  Very often, people’s opinions on something that sits at the back of their mind are very different than their reactions once it’s been leading the news for weeks and they have given it more thought. Why?

Because secondly, reactions to political decisions often depend as much on the context as on the decision itself.  Many people have well-developed opinions on issues, but most don’t – they make their opinions on questions like the Cuba embargo on the things said by the people they respect on these sorts of issues.  This is often called “cue-taking”; cue-givers can be media figures, social leaders, or partisan leaders.  Almost all issue opinions are colored by partisanship, and people generally line up behind the position taken by the elites of their party.

One upshot of this is that when one party is unified and the other is divided, the position of the unified party tends to carry the day with the populace in general.  That leads to the modest prediction: ending the embargo will likely be a fairly popular position and the Congress is unlikely to mount a successful push to reverse it. As long as Republican presidential candidates are publicly clashing over the issue, Republican voters are quite unlikely to solidify in opposition to it.  Most Democrats will line up behind the President on the question.  By 2016, this will no longer be particularly controversial and not a major election issue.

Of course, this could be completely wrong!  But division within the Republican party suggests the hardliners will lose the fight to make this a Republican priority.

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