Twenty-two years of conducting focus groups have led us to detect recurring patterns in public opinion. One that rears its head intermittently but significantly is the idea that Americans bring a “silo” mindset to legislation. It means that when Congress passes a law to do X, Americans think it should do only X, not Y.
We first noticed this phenomenon while testing messaging related to Social Security reform during George W. Bush’s presidency. Focus group respondents would invoke the importance of protecting the original program launched in 1935 to benefit the elderly while criticizing the later-added Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program benefitting people with disabilities. They said the latter was responsible for draining the retirement program for the elderly; both programs are managed by the Social Security Administration.
We then saw it a few years later when Congress attempted to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover lower-income adults. Voters in our focus groups wanted to know: If the program is supposed to cover kids, why should any money be diverted to adults?
Similarly, we heard resistance during the 2016 presidential campaign to the idea of expanding Medicare to include people under age 65. Again, the concern about “Medicare for all” came mainly from the elderly, who were fearful that adding millions more people to the program would limit access to doctors and drain funding from what they saw as their program.
Fast-forward to 2023. In conducting focus groups with Trump-to-Biden swing voters on March 14, we asked about a recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Commerce related to the Chips Act signed into law by President Biden last August. This bipartisan legislation provides $52 billion in subsidies to the semiconductor industry, which will, in part, fund the construction of large semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the United States.
Last month, in support of a longstanding Biden commitment to childcare, the Commerce Department announced that any firm seeking more than $150 million from the new Chips law would need to demonstrate how it will provide childcare to their workers.
We asked four Democrats, four Republicans, and four Independents—all Wisconsin Trump-to-Biden voters—whether they approved that strategy. Only three said they did. Most, instead, agree with Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who argues that federal subsidies for the semiconductor industry should not be tied to providing childcare for workers in the industry, two policies she considers unrelated.
“Tying [chips and childcare] together doesn’t make any sense…It’s just bringing political decisions or opinions and viewpoints into an issue that shouldn’t be about that at all. It’s about innovation, not about childcare,” commented Derek, 42, from Waunakee.
“When I was first hearing that, I was confused,” said Dawn, 49, from Milwaukee. “Why is the childcare policy even being brought into it? That’s two different issues that need to be addressed. Companies should provide [childcare], but it’s not part of the Chips Act. I think [childcare] should be separate.”
Dana, 46, from Madison, explained, “If [the company] is offering [childcare] as a benefit…like a 401(k), I think that’s fine, but I don’t think government money should be tied to that….Childcare is difficult to find. I’m a mom of five, and you just make it work. I wouldn’t have that expectation of money being tied to make sure they have childcare. That should be an option for the company [if they want to provide it as a benefit]…Why are we wrapping childcare into [the Chips Act]?”
Christopher, 41, from Menasha, added, “I don’t believe what you offer in terms of benefits as a business should be tied to any money you get or any threshold of money. I think it really takes away the purpose of the Chips Act, which is bringing technology to the U.S. so we can be more self-sufficient and not rely on other countries.”
Only three swing voters in our focus groups believe it’s appropriate for the Commerce Department to require this. All of them are rearing young children and are highly sympathetic to the challenges faced by working parents.
Evan, 34, from Niagara, remarked:
“I think [childcare] is one of many things that should be looked at when you’re talking about receiving a huge sum of money for something like this. I remember when I was a child. My mother was an ER nurse and my dad worked full-time at a mill. Aside from grandma, there was no place for me to go. I know that those childcare opportunities provided through my mother’s work – I spent a lot of time there when I was very young. That had my mother, who was a very good employee, able to work there and my dad able to keep his full-time job. In the same vein, I have friends that work in these long construction projects to build some of these facilities, and they run into the same issue. [They would say,] ‘My wife has a full-time job. I’m going to be gone for months – three, four, five months on some of these builds. Having that as an opportunity, at least to help, is really great.’ You’re going to get good people that way.”
It should be noted that our Wisconsin respondents absolutely favor having companies provide childcare. It’s just that they are opposed to marrying that policy to the Chips Act.
The underlying purpose of the Chips Act is to make the United States less reliant on other countries—particularly China—for key inputs necessary to produce cars, computers, phones, and other technologies. Supporters of the new law—people in both parties—believe reducing our reliance on other countries for these technologies is vital for our national security. In fact, all 12 respondents agreed with that sentiment. They contended that the new law would boost American jobs, and we need to learn from our experiences during the pandemic about the vulnerability of international supply chains.
“[Chips] are so important to our everyday life,” explained Tami, 58, from Oshkosh. “If you can’t get a chip for a car, you can’t manufacture that car and then all of a sudden, we don’t have cars. Would we go back to horse and buggy days? I have always thought that America has let other foreign countries manufacture too much of our stuff that we need. They’re outsourcing everything because it’s cheaper, and they need to keep it here so that we actually have it available.”
If policymakers want to win back the trust of swing voters, one step is to pass legislation narrowly tailored to solve a problem and then execute that law within the stated confines of that law. Exploiting a law to implement an unrelated policy agenda—one that Congress did not endorse when passing the law—fosters cynicism, not goodwill.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Sago. Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.