Americans offer tepid support for much of the Republican Party's domestic agenda, including repealing the new healthcare law and extending tax cuts for the wealthy, according to the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center.
The results suggest Republicans could struggle to pass legislation advancing many of the smaller-government themes that have dominated their campaigns in the midterm elections, even if the party wins control of one or both houses of Congress in November.
In particular, the party appears to risk a backlash from senior citizens, a critical voting bloc that harbors deep skepticism about tinkering with entitlement programs.
The survey is the most comprehensive polling look so far at the major elements of the agenda that key Republicans have been discussing in the weeks leading up to the election.
Not all the news was good for Democrats. Poll respondents continue to disapprove of President Obama's signature healthcare legislation, 45 percent to 38 percent. Overall, Republican ideas appear to do best among white male voters.
Still, the poll offered little to suggest that the surge in voter support for Republican candidates, whom analysts project to win major gains this fall, carries over to support for policies championed this fall by Republican leaders in Washington and on the campaign trail.
One in three respondents favored repealing the healthcare law. Similar proportions backed extending all tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush and replacing the government-run Medicare system with a program that provides vouchers for private health insurance.
On tax cuts, respondents divided into roughly thirds on whether to extend all the tax cuts, repeal them, or repeal only cuts for the wealthy and extend the rest.
The poll of 1,001 adults reached by landline or cell phone was conducted Thursday through Sunday. The margin of error is 4 points for the entire sample, with larger error margins for subgroups.
Respondents reacted more favorably to a proposal to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security tax dollars in private retirement accounts, including stocks and mutual funds. Nearly three in five Americans supported the plan, the same amount as in September 2004, when Bush ran on the issue in his re-election campaign.
Bush's proposal bogged down under fierce attacks from Democrats, who warned the plan would reduce guaranteed Social Security benefits. Pew researchers said to expect similar erosion if Congress begins debating a new Republican Social Security proposal in earnest.
"The public is uncomfortable about making changes to Medicare, even at this conceptual stage," said Michael Ramez, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Later, he added: "It shows how tough it is to build support for these entitlement changes."
Sustained campaigns by conservative activists, including the tea party movement, appears to have built support for a Republican proposal on the hot-button issue of immigration: whether to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.
Forty-six percent of respondents said they would like to amend the Constitution to require parents to be legal residents of the United States in order for their children to gain citizenship, compared to 49 percent opposed to the change.
Currently, any child born in the country is a citizen. The divided opinion is a change from Pew polls in June and in 2006, when majorities preferred to leave the Constitution as is.
The issue splits Americans on racial and regional lines. About half of whites -- and of residents of rural areas, the suburbs and the West -- supported amending the Constitution. That compares to less than two in five easterners and non-whites.
Whites were also far more likely than non-whites to back extending all of Bush's tax cuts, instead of repealing all the cuts or those for the wealthy.
Other proposals opened rifts among age groups. Americans 18-29 years old overwhelmingly supported the Social Security changes, compared to fewer than half of those 50 or older. Fewer than one in five senior citizens supported changing Medicare, versus two in five young people.
The Republican proposals scored best, across the board, with respondents age 30-49. None of the five drew the support of a majority of Americans 65 and older.
The plans drew mixed reviews from self-described independents. Perhaps more jarringly for Republican leaders, fewer than half of Republican respondents favored extending all the Bush tax cuts or replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers.
This article appears in the September 18, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.