Analysis: Many Americans don’t know what to make of the filibuster, polls find


President Joe Biden brought the procedural issue to the national forefront on Tuesday during a speech on voting rights, calling on the US Senate to change the current rules, which require 60 votes to end debate on legislation, in order for action to be taken on the issue.

“I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking actions on voting rights,” Biden said.

His speech followed a promise made by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier this month that the chamber would take a vote on such changes by Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17. Doing so would require support from two of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
That vote is unlikely to be dominating most Americans’ minds. In an April 2021 Fox News poll of registered voters, 27% favored eliminating the filibuster, with 29% opposing it and 39% saying they had no opinion. In an April 2021 Monmouth University survey, an equal 34% of Americans approved and disapproved of the filibuster respectively, with another third saying they didn’t have any opinion. In a third survey, released last August by Quinnipiac University, 40% of adults said it would be a good idea to eliminate the filibuster, with 47% calling it a bad idea — although that poll didn’t offer respondents an explicit “no opinion” option, about 13% volunteered it anyway.

There’s also plenty of additional evidence in the data that the filibuster isn’t a top concern for many.

In the Quinnipiac poll, just 38% of Americans said it was “very important” to them — a notably low number for that type of question. In the Monmouth survey, just 19% of Americans called themselves very familiar with the filibuster, with 4 in 10 saying they weren’t too familiar with it or hadn’t heard of it at all. And in a 2018 Pew Research survey, just 41% of Americans knew that 60 votes were needed to end a filibuster in the Senate, contrasting with the broad majorities who correctly answered questions on the role of the First Amendment or the Electoral College.

Americans who do hold opinions on the filibuster are generally divided along partisan lines, with Democrats far more likely than Republicans to support ending it. But many in both parties — and especially on the Democratic side — haven’t yet taken a stance. In Fox’s survey, the 44% of Democratic voters who favored eliminating the filibuster was roughly on par with the 42% who had no opinion at all.

Could Biden’s speech change that? The audiences for presidential speeches tend to be both friendly to the President and highly politically engaged — precisely the type of person who is least likely to need convincing. But a sustained push from Democratic politicians could help to unify ordinary Democrats more strongly around the issue.

The context of the current debate could matter as well. In Monmouth’s poll last spring, a slim 54% majority of Democrats said they disapproved of the filibuster in general, but a broader 61% said they’d oppose allowing the filibuster to be used to stop a bill on election rules and voting rights.

Americans have a long history of being confused by the filibuster. In 1947, when Gallup asked the public to define the term, only 48% could provide a correct definition — although most who could agreed that Congress should “do something” about them.

A follow-up survey two years later yielded guesses that a filibuster might be “some kind of kid’s shoes,” “an airplane” or “a parade.”



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