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.