As President Obama and congressional Republicans steam into another year of confrontation and collision, neither side commands a consistent majority of public support for its top priorities. That may be the single overriding conclusion from the past year of United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll results.
On taxes, clean energy, Medicare’s future, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and social issues such as gay rights and gun control, the surveys found the public leaning toward positions favored by Obama and most Capitol Hill Democrats. On domestic energy production, tax incentives for investment, and the mandate central to Obama’s health care law, the polls found the public leaning toward positions favored by most congressional Republicans.
On the debt and deficit—the issue that will likely dominate the debate between the two parties again this year—Americans tilt more toward Democratic than Republican solutions but are deeply resistant to any changes in tax or entitlement policy that could pinch their own wallets. Put another way, people are dubious of almost any of the steps that most analysts in both parties consider essential to any long-term fiscal stabilization plan. “They see deficit reduction as something worth doing, as an important abstract goal, but … people tend to be more intense about their own costs than they are about abstract costs,” says longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
Rippling through these differences are deep divisions along lines of party affiliation, education, age, and, above all, race. On many questions, whites lean toward positions much more favorable to Republicans, and more skeptical of government, than nonwhites do. In one of the most dramatic examples, nearly twice as many minorities as whites in a survey last September said Obama’s health care law would benefit people like them and their families. The large and racially diverse millennial generation, another cornerstone of the Democrats’ “coalition of the ascendant,” consistently bent more toward that party’s position on energy, gay rights, contraception, and other issues, while seniors leaned toward the GOP.
These disparities reflect a broader trend in the polls: the solidifying ideological consensus within each party’s electoral coalition. Yet that trend toward greater unity within the parties, and the wider distance between them, is bounded by the public’s stubborn refusal, on many fronts, to accept the either/or choices that the two sides usually present them. On immigration, a substantial majority supported a pathway to citizenship for at least some of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants; but majorities also endorsed the tough measures approved by Arizona and other states to find and apprehend people here illegally. Big majorities back both the increased domestic energy production championed most loudly by Republicans as well as the clean-energy mandates that the president and most Democrats support. The public’s instinct toward both/and solutions inverts the inclination of a political system in which each party now often seems more impassioned about blocking the other side’s priorities than advancing its own.
THE DEBT PARADOX
In the tables that follow, we recap the results from 22 Congressional Connection surveys from January 2012 through January 2013 that examined public attitudes on the key questions under debate in Congress. In each survey, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, questioned about 1,000 adults, with a margin of error of around 3.7 percentage points.
Over the past year, the poll has tracked public attitudes on the deficit and debt more than on any other issue. The results showed striking consistency—and leave elected officials facing a conundrum.
Asked in February 2012 to identify the principal cause of the nation’s deficit, more than two-thirds of respondents picked explanations that Democrats usually promote: either that the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes (46 percent) or that government spends too much on defense (24 percent). Just 14 percent identified as the main problem too much government spending on the poor, while only 3 percent selected growing government spending on the elderly—an answer that many nonpartisan analysts might place near the top. The partisan divide on this question was substantial (almost one in three Republicans identified spending on the poor as the principal problem, compared with only one in 50 Democrats), but even nearly one-third of Republicans pointed toward insufficient taxes on the wealthy. “That’s a real shift—the sense that the rich are not paying their fair share,” says Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux.
Given those findings, it isn’t surprising that taxing the wealthy and reducing defense spending were consistently the most popular ideas for controlling the deficit. Majorities (and often preponderant majorities) of those surveyed backed raising tax rates on families earning at least $250,000, limiting their tax deductions, and establishing a minimum tax for millionaires (the so-called Buffett Rule promoted by Obama). Still, even this impulse was bounded: A slight plurality of those polled last December said that, to spur investment and growth, Washington should continue to tax capital gains and dividends at a lower rate than wages, an approach that primarily benefits affluent households.
On spending, the surveys show persistent opposition to targeting Social Security or Medicare in any deficit-reduction program. Depending on how the question is framed, that opposition often reaches overwhelming levels: In a December poll, for instance, nearly four-fifths of respondents said any deficit-reduction plan should reduce spending on these programs “not at all.” Even nearly three-fourths of Republicans wanted to exempt the two programs. The proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that House Republicans included in their past two federal budgets to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system faced comparable resistance, with two-thirds in a September survey saying Washington should maintain the program in its current form; only 27 percent endorsed the change. (Even Republicans, 51 percent to 42 percent, opposed the voucher proposal.)
The surveys found somewhat greater receptivity to cutting spending on programs for the poor. On a broad question in February last year, more people worried that government taxes workers too much to fund the safety net than said it provides too little help to the poor. But about half or more of those polled in December said that, in any deficit-reduction plan, programs such as housing vouchers, food stamps, and Medicaid should be cut “not at all.” (Minority respondents were much more likely than whites to take that position.) A much larger percentage in that survey (nearly two-thirds) said defense spending should be targeted for “some” or “a lot” of cuts. On the current spending problem, a December survey found that almost two-thirds of adults considered the sequester cuts in domestic and defense spending a bad idea; that verdict varied little across party or racial lines.
Perhaps most important, the 2012 surveys suggest that while Americans see reducing the deficit as a worthwhile achievement, they do not prioritize that goal as highly as many leaders in both parties do. In separate polls in October and December, only about one in six adults said their principal concern about a deficit-reduction deal was that it would do too little to reduce the debt. About the same share said their top concern was that it would permit too much federal spending. By far the greater concern was that any deal would cut too much from Social Security and Medicare (just over one-third each time) or that it would raise taxes on “people like me” (about one-fourth each time).
Both Ayres and Molyneux say those results show the political implausibility of selling any major deficit-reduction plan to the public without buy-in from the leadership in both parties. “The only way around that is for a national leader—i.e., the president—to make the case that it is strongly in the country’s best interest to get a handle on this problem and, No. 2, that everybody is going to have to contribute something,” Ayres says. “If it is perceived that the constituency represented by one party is held harmless and the constituency represented by the other party is bearing most of the burden, you will never get a consensus to do anything about the problem.”
Similarly, Molyneux says that only a bipartisan agreement has any potential to win broad support. “If we ever got to the point where … leaders in both parties were telling voters this is something we need to do to get the deficit under control, people might be willing to swallow some things they wouldn’t in isolation,” he says. “But it also tells you that it is going to be hard for elected officials to do those things on a partisan basis where the other party has … a free shot at them.”
NO CLEAR WINNERS
Across an array of other issues the poll examined over the past year, the results offered encouragement for both parties. In September, half of those polled said Obama’s health care law would do more to benefit than hurt the nation, consistent with results on similar questions in the spring. But the polls also found preponderant opposition to the law’s core mandate that individuals purchase health insurance, and a broad sense among whites that the program would benefit poor people but not their own families. While a majority of whites said the program would help the poor, just one-third believed their own families would benefit. More than three-fifths of nonwhites said they expected their families to benefit.
Energy offers a similarly conflicted picture. Last May, nearly two-thirds of adults said Congress should require utilities to generate an increasing portion of their power from cleaner energy sources like renewables or natural gas, as President Obama has proposed. And in November, nearly three-fifths said climate change was making it more likely that storms like Hurricane Sandy would hit the United States. (In January, though, more rejected than supported the idea that climate change explained record U.S. heat in 2012.) But big majorities also want to expand domestic drilling for oil and gas; proceed with the hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) technique for recovering natural gas opposed by many environmentalists; and build the Keystone XL pipeline opposed even more passionately by the environmental community. Asked last March whether the best way to create jobs and restrain energy prices was to focus on promoting renewable sources or to expand production of oil and gas, slightly more respondents picked renewables each time. Young people, who were also more likely to link storms like Sandy to climate change, overwhelmingly preferred renewables.
Immigration, as noted above, evoked similarly mixed views. The polls found majority support for establishing a pathway to citizenship and for the tough steps Arizona took to discover and detain illegal immigrants (although minorities were much less receptive than whites). On social issues, the surveys uncovered a strong movement toward gay rights (especially, but not exclusively, among young people); broad resistance to congressional Republicans’ efforts to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood; and much closer splits in Obama’s direction on both gun control and the mandate that employers providing health insurance include free access to contraception coverage.
Beyond the disagreements on any individual issue, the polls show that Washington faces tremendous skepticism that it can get anything done. Most Americans in a survey last summer said they admired legislators “who make compromises” rather than those “who stick to their positions without compromising” (even though Republicans were more likely than independents or especially Democrats to prefer the uncompromising). But in a September poll, a 53 percent majority said the principal reason Washington had not done more to stimulate job growth is that “fighting between Democrats and Republicans has blocked needed government action.”
Last spring, just one-third of adults, and only about one-fourth of whites, expressed either “a lot” or even “some” confidence that “the government in Washington, D.C., will make progress over the next year on the most important problems facing the country.” Fully 64 percent of adults said they had “not much” or “no confidence at all” that Washington would get much done on the problems that concern them. More than seven in 10 whites agreed. That’s the meager expectation Obama and Congress will confirm or confound in the months ahead as they confront their differences on spending, taxes, immigration, gun control, energy, climate change—and all the other issues that divide them.