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The content of the Feb. 24 memo, “Taking the Win over COVID-19,” closely matches statements Biden made Tuesday during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
The two-page memo was distributed to “interested parties” by Impact Research, a public opinion research firm that provides “strategic thoughts for Democrats positioning themselves on COVID-19 after nearly two years of the pandemic.”
The “strategic thoughts” proffered by Impact Research include:
- Declare the crisis phase of COVID over and push for feeling and acting more normal.
- Recognize that people are “worn out” and feeling real harm from the years-long restrictions and take their side.
- Acknowledge COVID still exists and likely will for a long time.
- Don’t set “COVID zero” as the victory condition.
- Stop talking about restrictions and the unknown future ahead.
The authors of the memo, Molly Murphy and Bryan Stryker, provided an explanation of the thought process underlying these strategic thoughts while describing efforts against COVID as a “war” – one that is now moving into a new phase:
“After two years that necessitated lockdowns, travel bans, school closures, mask mandates, and nearly a million deaths, nearly every American finally has the tools to protect themselves from this virus. It’s time for Democrats to take credit for ending the COVID crisis phase of the COVID war, point to important victories like vaccine distribution and providing economic stability to Americans, and fully enter the rebuilding phase that comes after any war.”
Acknowledging that shifting public opinion has a tangible political and policy impact, the memo also references the increasing fatigue with and unpopularity of COVID-related mandates among the general public:
“Twice as many voters are now more concerned about COVID’s effect on the economy (49%) than about someone in their family or someone they know becoming infected with the coronavirus (24%).
“Two-thirds of parents and 80% of teachers say the pandemic caused learning loss, and voters are overwhelmingly more worried about learning loss than kids getting COVID. Six in ten Americans describe themselves as “worn out” by the pandemic.
“The more we talk about the threat of COVID and onerously restrict people’s lives because of it, the more we turn them against us and show them we’re out of touch with their daily realities.”
Translated, this could be interpreted to mean that harsh COVID mandates — described in the memo as “onerous” — are costing votes for the politicians enforcing them.
As reported Feb. 25 by the political blog Punchbowl News, the memo “has been making the rounds among House and Senate Democratic campaigns and consultants.”
According to Punchbowl News, the pollsters at Impact Research, “certainly have tapped into the mood of Democratic campaign pros, who see disaster in November unless the party figures out a better message on Covid,” adding that “Biden administration sources have told us they plan to talk about turning a corner on Covid during the State of the Union [address], so clearly they share some of these thoughts.”
Biden follows the script
Indeed, Biden’s message Tuesday night closely paralleled the talking points of the Impact Research memo:
“For more than two years, COVID-19 has impacted every decision in our lives and the life of the nation.
“And I know you’re tired, frustrated, and exhausted.
“But I also know this.
“Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.
“We’ve reached a new moment in the fight against COVID-19, with severe cases down to a level not seen since last July.
“Just a few days ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the CDC — issued new mask guidelines.
“Under these new guidelines, most Americans in most of the country can now be mask-free.
“And based on the projections, more of the country will reach that point across the next couple of weeks.
“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.
“I know some are talking about “living with COVID-19.” Tonight – I say that we will never just accept living with COVID-19.
“We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard.”
When compared with the “strategic thoughts” put forth by Impact Research, it is clear Biden declared the crisis phase of COVID over, recognized people are “worn out,” acknowledged and “COVID still exists and likely will for a long time.”
Biden — whose approval rate has dropped to as low as 38% according to recent polls — also did not, as the memo advised, set “COVID zero” as “the victory condition.”
The Impact Research memo was circulated one day before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 25 eased their mask guidance, and a series of Democratic governors and mayors announced the end of mask and vaccine mandates.
The U.S. Capitol lifted its own mask mandate just two days prior to the State of the Union address.
Mass media outlets, which for the most part until now vehemently supported such countermeasures, also visibly shifted their position in recent days.
For instance, a CNN medical analyst who had previously compared unvaccinated people to drunk drivers and who strongly favored strict COVID mandates, recently said “the science has changed” and that it is now appropriate to end mask mandates.
Moreover, on the same week, the Impact Research memo circulated, Saturday Night Live, which for the past two years also toed the pro-mandate orthodoxy, openly mocked vaccine and mask mandates and questioned whether they were ever necessary, with such lines as “Do I have to dump my oldest friend just cause he didn’t get … a booster?”
Political commentator Clay Travis, in a tweet, remarked: “[a]mazing how quickly the pivot has happened.”
Here’s SNL’s dinner party skit as left wingers discuss whether masks and vaccines were actually necessary. Amazing how quickly the pivot has happened. pic.twitter.com/gwgWSceYsY
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) February 28, 2022
The timing of restrictions being lifted and shifting media opinion, combined with the close parallels between Biden’s speech and the Impact Research memo, raise an important question: Are public health policy decisions being driven by “science” — or by polling and public relations?
Impact Research: a well-connected ‘ally’ that ‘elects candidates’
And the firm describes itself as “a proud ally and asset to progressive causes and campaigns around the globe,” adding, “we elect candidates” and “guide institutional policy.”
The firm’s client list, aside from Biden, includes a who’s who of Democratic party politicians, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others.
Impact Research says it “has beaten more Republican congressional incumbents than any other polling firm in the industry,” “has worked for every Democratic Presidential nominee since 2008,” and continues “to work with the White House and the Biden advocacy group Building Back Together.”
The two pollsters who authored the Feb. 24 memo are themselves prominent within the industry. Molly Murphy, recently named president of Impact Research, was the winner of the 2019 American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) “Pollster of the Year Award.”
Murphy also serves as a lead advisor for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and has worked on the campaigns of Roy Cooper, as well as Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).
Brain Stryker, co-author of the memo, has won the AAPC’s “40 Under 40” award (as has Murphy), and led polling for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and for overseas politicians, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
Govs. Whitmer and Cooper were, for much of the past two years, at the forefront of imposing COVID-related countermeasures, including lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccine-related mandates.
In recent months, Whitmer has made markedly fewer references to COVID in her public statements — perhaps a reflection of advice from Impact Research in response to polling figures.
Earlier in February, Whitmer dropped the state’s mask mandate, announcing the state was getting “back to normal.”
One day after Whitmer’s announcement, Cooper “encouraged schools and local governments to end their mask mandates” in North Carolina.
The narrative surrounding mask and vaccine mandates — and “following the science” — is rapidly changing among many who previously voiced strong support for those very measures.
Political blog Axios, soon after the Impact Research memo surfaced, wrote, “the idea of ‘following the science’ has oversimplified what’s actually a complex array of factors that policymakers must weigh in formulating a response.”
“Science has been weaponized time and again to justify or defend positions held by both policymakers and public health experts … Science isn’t absolute — data can come with uncertainties and unknowns.”
This is a far cry from the prevailing rhetoric since 2020 instructing the public to “follow the science.”
In another example, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quickly forced to abandon his “hands-off’ approach to COVID in March 2020, instead imposing a strict lockdown approximately one week after most other European countries implemented such measures.
This sudden turn came after sharp criticism from the media questioning the government’s “inefficient” response and asking what was taking so long, and the publication of an advice paper by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, the lead scientist on the UK’s COVID-19 response team.
In other words, public opinion, optics and pressure likely guided governments, such as that of the UK, into imposing restrictions — in much the same way Impact Research is now citing public opinion as a means for Biden and Democratic Party politicians, including state governors, to back off from mandates and other restrictions and declare a “victory” of sorts over COVID.
Such guidance from Impact Research and similar firms may also help explain the coordinated actions of seemingly disparate governments and public health authorities worldwide.
Take Sweden, for example, which bucked the trend and eschewed strict restrictions, never mandating masks or imposing lockdowns. Early on, Sweden’s response was described by TIME magazine as a “disaster” and by Science magazine as “surreal.”
A Swedish official commission investigating the government’s approach to handling COVID, however, recently found the decision to avoid a lockdown was “justified” and that such measures in other countries were neither “necessary” nor “defensible.”
The report was released during the same week Impact Research distributed its memo.
Further highlighting how suddenly the narrative has changed, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as recently as Feb. 14 said masking schoolchildren “is absolutely the right way.”
This despite the fact that the poll referenced by Impact Research in its memo — which found 80% of teachers surveyed reported students experienced learning loss — had been publicized in September 2021.
As reported recently by The Defender, the AFT recently signed an agreement with “fact-checking” firm NewsGuard to bring learning materials pertaining to such “fact-checking” to the classrooms of the 1.7 million teachers who are members of AFT.
Not all “progressive” media outlets have pivoted to the new poll-driven messaging. Naked Capitalism, for example, could not mask its displeasure with the CDC’s newly relaxed mask guidance, issued one day after the Feb. 24 memo.
Commentators on the “alt-right,” such as Paul Joseph Watson, portrayed the CDC’s about-face as an “I told you so” moment that validated his and others’ long-held position against such restrictions.
For Biden and other politicians that are advised by Impact Research, however, the memo appears to be an effort to spin a situation that — from a political standpoint, has turned against them — into a “win.”