One of the great joys of being a public opinion pollster comes when results to different questions seem to contradict each other. Some people — far too many in the political world — simply dismiss such apparent contradictions as evidence that people are either irrational or stupid. However, for those of us who trust the commonsense wisdom of everyday Americans, seemingly contradictory results provide an opportunity to better understand the public mood in a more nuanced manner. 

I’ve seen many examples of this since first writing about how pollsters may be asking the wrong questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, I noted that most Americans understand it’s not a question of stay home to stay safe or go out and get sick. Instead, most recognize that there are significant health risks involved in continuing the lockdowns. Since no options are completely safe, voters are weighing the difficult trade-offs based upon the underlying facts. 

My polling this past weekend found that 23% of voters think government officials have gone too far in shutting things down. However, 71% believe those officials have either not gone far enough (35%) or have found the right balance (36%). 

Are we asking the right questions about COVID-19 and the economy?
What do Americans think of the lockdown and reopening society? The data tells a story

Most pollsters have found similar results. In most cases, the polls show slight growth in the number who think the government has gone too far, but that perspective still reflects a minority view. Using this as the only point of reference, one might conclude that voters remain committed to maintaining the lockdowns. Indeed, that’s the way much media coverage defines the public mood. 

But when you ask questions from a different perspective, it becomes clear there is another side to the story. Sixty percent (60%) of voters believe every business that establishes safe social distancing protocols should be allowed to open. Every business! Not just a chosen few. Just 26% oppose the idea. 

These numbers cut strongly against the narrative that voters remain committed to continuing the lockdowns. 

What’s especially fascinating about this is that the results come from the exact same poll finding that 71% reject the idea that governments have gone too far. The same 1,200 survey respondents provided these seemingly very different answers. 

It gets even more interesting when you dig a little deeper. 

  • Not surprisingly, just about everyone who thinks the government has gone too far believes that businesses should be allowed to open with appropriate safety protocols. 
  • Among those who think the government response so far has been about right, 61% agree that all businesses should be allowed to reopen with safety protocols. Just 23% are opposed. The overall tone seems to be that the response has been OK so far and allowing businesses to open responsibly is the next logical step. 
  • The most stunning response comes from those who think the government has not gone far enough in shutting things down. On the question of allowing every business to reopen, they are evenly divided: 39% say yes while 45% do not. 

What’s going on with about the people who think that governments have not gone far enough in shutting things down? How come only 45% of them oppose letting all businesses reopen? 

One possible explanation may have something to do with words like lockdown and shutdown being used in the public dialogue almost interchangeably with social distancing and flattening the curve. As a result, some voters may viscerally equate ending the lockdowns with ending all social distancing efforts. So, they are uncomfortable ending lockdowns but OK with businesses that establish appropriate safety protocols. 

Another possibility is that we may be misinterpreting the perceptions of the 35% who say governments have not gone far enough. Many in that group undoubtedly want even stricter government limits on social interaction. However, others may think the governments haven’t done enough to establish safe approaches for reopening society. 

Whatever the explanation, the fact remains that only 1 out of 4 voters today is opposed to letting all businesses reopen in a responsible manner. That really shouldn’t be all that surprising given America’s historic commitment to individual freedom. In fact, the same survey found that 65% are concerned that some public officials are using the pandemic as an excuse to infringe upon the constitutional rights of individual Americans. 

The bottom line is that most voters are ready to end the formal, government-imposed, lockdowns. But they are still demanding a strong societal commitment to social distancing and appropriate health protocols. The new rules will be enforced by individual Americans deciding which businesses are safe enough to visit and which ones should be avoided.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”