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Though More Optimistic, Americans Are Still Sharply Divided Though More Optimistic, Americans Are Still Sharply Divided

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Magazine / HEARTLAND MONITOR POLL

Though More Optimistic, Americans Are Still Sharply Divided

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll finds that forging common purpose in a divided nation remains challenging even after the contentious election campaign.

Reflecting the public divide: Congressional leaders.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

After a campaign season of unprecedented expense and duration, taming the federal deficit and avoiding the fiscal cliff top the public’s To Do list for President Obama and Congress, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.

But in contrast to Washington’s nearly exclusive focus on the budgetary standoff, Americans express almost equal worry about an array of other economic challenges, including the availability of jobs, the quality of education, and the cost of college and health care. And even as Americans urge policymakers to reach a budget deal, the poll found that most rank progress on other fronts, such as improving education and promoting manufacturing, above stabilizing the federal government’s finances as a key to long-term economic renewal.

In the election’s aftermath, the survey finds a modest but measurable uptick in support for Obama and in optimism about the nation’s direction. And most Americans say they want the president and congressional Republicans to compromise “to get more done,” even if that means accepting some policies that the respondents don’t necessarily agree with.

 

Yet the poll shows that anxiety about the economy’s trajectory, and skepticism that the two sides will in fact reach agreement, remain entrenched. On many issues, so do the same partisan, ideological, and racial divides that characterized last month’s election. When it comes to a number of the key choices, voters who supported Obama and those who backed Republican Mitt Romney express almost diametrical priorities. For all the concern about the deficit, few solutions other than raising taxes on the rich generate much enthusiasm in the survey. And whites, who gave Romney near-record support for a White House challenger, display throughout the poll a strikingly pessimistic streak about the nation’s direction and Obama’s likely effect on it.

Taken together, these results suggest that the election hasn’t remotely cleared away all of the obstacles that made for a rocky two years between Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But it may have provided a narrow pathway toward progress for both sides. Above all, the survey shows how great a challenge Washington faces in forging responses to our most pressing problems that can command, much less sustain, support from more than a narrow and fleeting majority of the American people.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

The latest Heartland Monitor survey, supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting’s Strategic Communications practice, is the 15th in a series exploring how Americans are navigating the changing economy. This poll explores the public’s economic priorities and concerns in the postelection period—as well as attitudes about competing approaches for responding to those problems. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults from Nov. 25-Dec. 1 on landline and cell phones and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Like the presidential election itself, the results show the country closely, but sharply, split on a wide assortment of assessments and choices.

One telling series of questions asked respondents to rank on a scale from zero to 10 what they consider the highest priorities for “elected officials in Washington” to address; and, separately, to list the long-term steps that “would do the most to improve the country over … the next 10 to 20 years.” Those questions produced subtle and revealing differences, not only within each list but also between the two.

On the immediate assignment list for Washington, dealing with the budget deficit and national debt finished first, drawing an average score of 8.4 on that zero-to-10 scale of importance. But five other issues clustered close behind it: “the status of Social Security and Medicare” (at an average of 8.2); the availability of good-paying jobs (8.1); the education system, including its cost (at 8.0); the cost of health care and the tax system (both at 7.9).

Infographic

These priorities diverge substantially across racial and partisan lines. For whites, dealing with the deficit ranks as the clear first priority, followed by Social Security and Medicare, and then the availability of good jobs. For minorities, the top priority is the education system (which ranked only sixth among whites), followed by the entitlement programs, jobs, and the cost of health care.

Similarly, poll respondents who said they voted for Romney identify reducing the deficit, by far, as their highest priority, followed by national defense and the war on terrorism. Among Obama voters, debt ranked fifth and terrorism was 12th. Their top priorities are education, jobs, health care costs, and the entitlement programs.

Interviews with poll respondents underscored the distance between these perspectives. “We need to invest in our future even if it costs us a buck now—if it means maintaining deficits for a while,” says Thomas Segel, a retired tile-setter from Gainesville, Mo., in a comment typical of Obama’s supporters.

By contrast, Romney voters expressed passionate concern about the direction of federal spending. And perhaps reflecting the debate over government “dependency” that swirled around Romney’s “47 percent” comment, many of his supporters expressed visceral distaste for transfer programs that benefit the poor. “We need to cut some people off and give them a work program or something,” insisted Chandra, a homemaker in Huntingdon, Tenn., who did not provide her last name. “Put them to work somehow. But they shouldn’t be collecting a check for nothing.” Judy King, a retired jail administrator in Jasper, Texas, was equally vehement. “The deficit is getting worse and worse, and we’re going to fold completely under if they don’t fix it,” she worries. “Quit spending. Cut back. There’s no reason for paying for people who are too lazy to take a job.”

Yet for all the attention and passion focused on the federal deficit, controlling it ranked relatively low among the public’s long-term priorities. When asked which of six actions would most “improve the country over the long term,” just 12 percent picked “eliminating the federal budget deficit through tax increases and spending cuts.” Only “increasing U.S. energy security” ranked lower.

The top priority for long-term renewal, at 30 percent, was “making education more affordable, accessible, and relevant to today’s job market.” Promoting American manufacturing (17 percent), providing incentives to help people start their own business (15 percent), and reducing the trade deficit (14 percent) all finished ahead of controlling the deficit.

These priorities again vary somewhat across racial lines, with improving education a much more decisive top finisher for minorities than for whites. But the real differences are across party lines. Over two-fifths of Obama voters picked improving education as the key to long-term renewal, more than double the share that chose any other option. But education placed last among Romney voters, with only about one in eight identifying it. Reducing the deficit and promoting manufacturing topped the list of Romney-voter priorities.

This divide powerfully resurfaced on another question that asked respondents to choose among different strategies for long-term economic revival. A 43 percent plurality said they see the greatest chance for success in a Democratic-leaning strategy centered on “investments in education, training, infrastructure, and research, even if it means continued deficits and tax increases.” Twenty-nine percent said they believe the economy is most likely to thrive behind a traditionally Republican approach of “tax cuts for businesses and individuals, even if it means continued deficits and cuts to public services.” Just 22 percent said they would bet on “reducing the federal deficit, even if it means both tax increases and cuts to public services.”

Once again, Obama and Romney supporters lined up in contrasting camps. Fully 62 percent of Obama supporters say an investment strategy offers the best prospect for progress. Kendal Karten, a homemaker in Old Bridge, N.J., is typical. “I am a firm believer in investing in ourselves,” she says. “If we invest as a whole, as a people, the dividends are great. If you have a better-educated population, they’ll have better ideas—there will be more entrepreneurs. The role of the government is not necessarily to have no deficit; it’s to stimulate the economy.” Only about one in six Obama voters picked either tax cuts or deficit reduction as the most promising strategy.

By contrast, nearly a combined three-fourths of Romney backers prefer cutting taxes (42 percent) or reducing the deficit (30 percent). Only about one in five would bet on public investment. “Even as an individual person, you can’t overspend, [but] … government is way out of control,” says Connie Weber, a special-education teacher in West Virginia. “It’s in programs the government should have never gotten involved in. Housing and bailing out companies.”

When the poll asked respondents to directly assess the competing strategies for reducing the deficit, the results crystallized both the divergence and ambivalence that so complicate the fiscal debate. Fully 76 percent of those surveyed chose increasing taxes on families earning at least $250,000 annually as an effective strategy for reducing the deficit, more than picked any other option. But the inimical approach of “reducing taxes and regulations to spur economic growth” ranked second at 73 percent.

The country divides much more closely on three other options for controlling the deficit: reducing defense spending (with 54 percent identifying it as an effective approach), raising taxes on all Americans (53 percent), and reducing spending on programs that support the poor such as welfare and Medicaid (51 percent).

Almost all budget experts believe that Washington can’t ultimately balance its books without controlling spending on programs that benefit the elderly, such as Social Security and Medicare. But only about one-third of those polled agree. Reducing such spending was by far the least popular option overall, and it offered a rare point of bipartisan convergence. Although Romney voters are almost twice as likely as Obama supporters to back cutting programs that benefit the poor, only one-third of each man’s voters want to point the knife toward the giant entitlements for the elderly.

WE SHALL OVERCOME

As from the beginning, the latest Heartland Monitor finds that the strains of the Great Recession and its grueling aftermath have not cracked the public’s bedrock optimism that America can meet the complex political and economic challenges confronting it. Exactly two-thirds of those polled say they believe the nation eventually “will overcome these challenges … just like we’ve done with other major challenges throughout our history.” Slightly under one-third believe that “Americans are facing a unique set of challenges that are so serious that we might not be able to overcome them.” The sense of mastery is widely shared across racial, class, and generational lines (although a 49 percent plurality of Romney voters, probably reflecting disappointment over Obama’s victory, take the pessimistic view). “We’ve had hard times in our history that have been very challenging—far more challenging than what we just went through,” said Karten, the New Jersey homemaker.

Yet also like earlier surveys, this poll finds that optimism tempered by the fear that the hard times of recent years represent a “new normal” of diminished opportunity, particularly for young people, and widening insecurity. “I don’t think that anything will be comfy cozy again, where everyone could buy a house and take a vacation—that’s a reality for a small share of people,” says Segel, the retired tile-setter.

Infographic

To Arron Neal, a young communications consultant in Los Angeles, life milestones that an earlier generation considered a birthright seem almost beyond reach for her and her husband. “We’d love to be able to buy a home, but it just seems like such an unattainable goal,” she says. Weber, the special-education teacher, says she and her husband (also a teacher) expect to be paying off their student loans “until we die.” Although they are both employed, she says, “we might not even be in the middle class. We’re probably in the lower classes…. I don’t think the middle class will get much better because of the cost of living. Wages might go up, but they’re not going up as fast as the cost of living. Job opportunities—I don’t see that increasing.”

This sense of exposure to a diverse set of economic risks permeates the responses to another question that asked respondents to rank a series of personal concerns on the zero-to-10 scale. Topping the list are worries about the availability of Social Security (8.1) and being able to retire comfortably (8.0). Four other concerns cluster close behind at 7.5 or above: the cost of health care, job security, the price of energy, and being able to afford education for yourself or your children “that will lead to a good job.” At least 70 percent of those responding describe themselves as extremely concerned about each of those challenges.

These responses converge more across racial and party lines than the answers about the country’s top near- and long-term priorities, with one exception. Minorities and Democrats place a much higher emphasis than whites and Republicans do on the cost and quality of education. Amanda, a young Hispanic mother in Leesburg, Fla., who declined to give her last name, is struggling to pay off loans she took out to obtain a health care credential. “You’re not going to get anywhere without education,” she says, “but with them cutting budgets, it just makes things worse when you go to college. I know how hard it is when you are getting phone calls from the student-debt companies grilling you about when you are going to repay.”

DOUBTS ABOUT WASHINGTON

In the survey, Americans express modest optimism that Washington will make progress over the next four years on this formidable array of challenges. Asked how effectively the federal government will deal with half a dozen key problems, only about one-third say they expect policymakers to be “not very” or “not at all” effective in stabilizing Social Security and Medicare, creating jobs, improving the public education system, and growing the economy. But less than one-fourth say they expect Washington to be “very effective” in grappling with each of those challenges. In every case, the largest group, around two-fifths of respondents, offer the lukewarm expectation that the government will be “somewhat effective” in generating progress.

The balance tilts further toward pessimism on another priority: creating a business climate that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. The public is, by far, most dubious that Washington will control the federal deficit, with a 51 percent majority picking the two most pessimistic options. That response is driven partly by overwhelming skepticism among Republicans, but almost three-fifths of independents also expect little progress on blotting the red ink.

Another question measuring expectations about broader trends through Obama’s second term produced a similarly arid forecast. Only 51 percent of those surveyed say they expect the economy to improve over the next four years. Even smaller percentages expect improvement in their personal financial situation (39 percent); the economic well-being of middle-class Americans (36 percent); narrowing the income gap between rich and everyone else (36 percent); and lessening the federal deficit (34 percent.) More respondents expect taxes to increase (62 percent) and government spending to rise (51 percent). Still, only one-fourth look for government spending to increase on programs that would benefit people like them.

On each of these questions, whites are far more pessimistic than minorities, with the only exception that neither group is confident about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Two-thirds of minorities, for instance, compared with just over two-fifths of whites, say they expect the economy to improve; the gap is even wider in projections about personal financial circumstances. Slightly more than one-third of minorities expect government to spend more on programs that will benefit people like them; only about one-fifth of whites agree.

As negotiations on the deficit and other issues accelerate, most Americans, consistent with past surveys, say they want both sides to compromise. Just under three-fifths of Obama voters say he should “compromise with Republicans to get more done, even if it means accepting some policies” that the respondents don’t support. Fifty-four percent of Romney voters respond the same way about congressional Republicans compromising with Obama. That continues a consistent pattern in surveys of Republican partisans showing somewhat less enthusiasm about compromise than Democrats. (“I want there to be a divide,” says Chandra, the Tennessee homemaker. “I don’t want people to give up.”)

Fewer respondents think the two sides will, in fact, compromise. Just 43 percent said they expect the president and Congress to “work together more than they did in the previous four years.” Forty-five percent said they thought relations will be about the same, and 10 percent said they think the two sides will cooperate even less, which is a little like forecasting a drought in a desert. Democrats and minorities are much more optimistic about progress than Republicans and whites, with independents falling in between.

Obama, the poll suggests, moves into these discussions in a slightly strengthened political position. In the survey, he experiences a swell, not a surge, in support. His approval rating in the poll rose to 54 percent, up from 49 percent in the preelection September survey and his strongest showing since the July 2009 Heartland Monitor. But his approval rating still sits at just 43 percent among whites and 48 percent among independents.

Another key measure also shows perceptible, but modest, tailwinds for the president. The share of Americans who say the country is moving on the right track bumped up from 35 percent in September to 41 percent now, the best number since April 2009. But Democrats primarily fueled that advance: Only about one in three independents (and whites) and just one in 11 Republicans agree that the country is moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, just 44 percent of adults (including a microscopic 9 percent of Romney voters) expect the economy to improve over the next year. The share who think their personal situation will improve fell from 45 percent in September to 39 percent now, with Republicans primarily driving the decline.

Obama reaps only small gains, well within the margin of error, on two questions about the impact of his economic policies. Respondents still divide almost exactly in half on whether his agenda is laying the foundation for recovery or produces record deficits while failing to end the recession; and whether his approach will increase or decrease opportunity for people like them. In each case, minorities are substantially more likely than whites to see positive effects from Obama’s agenda; in the 11 Heartland Monitor polls since January 2010, not more than 28 percent of whites have ever said they believe Obama’s agenda would increase opportunities for people like them. (On this front, college and noncollege whites substantially agree.)

Strategically, the good news for Obama is that congressional Republicans engender even less confidence. Only about one in five overall approve of Congress’s performance. And by a solid 48 percent to 32 percent, those surveyed say they trust Obama more than congressional Republicans to develop solutions to the country’s economic problems. That’s Obama’s widest advantage on that question in the 10 times the Heartland Monitor has asked it since September 2009—and it may help explain the hard line the president is taking in the initial collisions with congressional Republicans over the impending fiscal cliff.

SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE

While taxes and spending represent Washington’s most immediate challenge, the poll also tracked broader attitudes about how the nation should deal with many of the financial challenges that people identified. These questions sought to measure preferences not about specific policies but about the direction Washington should take in responding to worries such as the cost and quality of education, retirement security, and health care. On many of these policy choices, the nation, ominously, remains closely divided, with deep crevices along the overlapping lines of race and partisanship.

Americans divide almost in half, for instance, over whether Washington should continue to fund programs to promote homeownership at its current level (49 percent) or scale them back because they cost too much (47 percent). Two-thirds of Democrats picked the first option; more than three-fifths of Republicans chose the second. Likewise, exactly half of whites want to scale back, while three-fifths of minorities want to maintain, Washington’s efforts to promote homeownership.

A question on higher education produces a similar split between those who want Washington to spend more on providing financial aid (47 percent) and those who want government to shift its focus toward limiting access to student aid for schools that raise tuition too quickly (44 percent). Three-fifths of both Democrats and minorities want to expand aid, while only about one-third of Republicans and two-fifths of whites agree.

On the impact of health care reform, Americans sort almost exactly into three camps, with about one-third each saying Obama’s plan will improve the system by increasing access and lowering costs, hurt the system by disrupting it, or not do enough to change it. Whites are more likely to say that reform will hurt rather than help the system, but nearly twice as many minorities are positive than negative about the change.

Likewise, the country is divided closely on whether families should continue to rely primarily on individual 401(k) plans to finance their retirement (52 percent) or whether the turbulence in financial markets since 2007 makes that approach too risky (44 percent). Two-thirds of Republicans side with the first answer; nearly three-fifths of Democrats with the second. Similar partisan breaks are evident on a question about whether the primary responsibility for financing infrastructure should continue to rest with government (54 percent) or shift to the private sector (43 percent).

Two other long-term choices generate greater consensus. By 61 percent to 34 percent, a solid majority of all respondents say the nation is more likely to enhance its international competitiveness by improving K-12 education than by making college education more accessible and affordable, with little difference among Democrats and Republicans. And a comparably robust 62 percent to 34 percent majority think the best approach to retirement security is to “continue the current system of Social Security and Medicare which offer guaranteed benefits to seniors but are consuming a growing share of the federal budget” rather than restructuring the programs “to rely more on the private sector, which would place less strain on the federal budget but provide seniors fewer guaranteed benefits.” Even nearly half of Republicans want to continue relying mostly on government for retirement benefits.

And after a campaign that focused an intense spotlight on the nation’s changing face, the survey found that considerably more Americans believe that the steady growth of the minority population is a positive trend. In the new survey, 53 percent of those surveyed say the changes “continue the American tradition of welcoming people of all backgrounds” while 42 percent say the “change is happening too quickly and causing fundamental changes to the [country’s] character and values.” In May 2011, the results were almost reversed, with respondents picking the negative option 50 percent to 42 percent. African-Americans, especially, expressed much more acceptance of the changes in the new survey than the old, but whites did as well.

Whites still split almost in half, however, on whether this change is beneficial (49 percent) or harmful (46 percent). And more than 55 percent of Romney voters and of all noncollege whites see these trends as harmful. That continues the pattern throughout the polls of whites expressing much more anxiety than nonwhites about many of the basic currents in American life. In the poll, whites also consistently display much more skepticism than nonwhites about using government to redirect those currents.

On the foundational question that the poll has asked since January 2010, the latest survey once again finds the country closely divided on government’s role in responding to the nation’s challenges. The largest group, but well below a majority, endorse the Ronald Reaganesque view that government is more the problem than the solution (37 percent); 31 percent embrace the Democratic perspective that government, by definition, “must play an active role” in regulating the marketplace and expanding opportunity. The remainder say they are open to public-sector activism in theory but dubious that government can meet its objectives.

Whites are nearly twice as likely as nonwhites to believe that government is more the problem than the solution. About 70 percent of Romney voters endorsed that perspective, compared with about 14 percent of Obama voters.

Across all of these fronts, the president and the 113th Congress that will convene in January face the formidable challenge of building a working majority for change from two separate but equal political coalitions that are now almost identical in size—but utterly divergent in their racial composition, policy priorities, and view of government’s role. Like the election itself, this survey shows that Obama, behind the new Democratic coalition of minorities, young people, and upscale white women, undertakes that work with a slightly larger base of support than the GOP. But it also underscores how much of the white electorate remains estranged from his vision. The prerequisite for addressing the challenges identified in this latest Heartland Monitor Poll may be renewing a sense of common purpose in an America where it remains elusive, even after the booming guns of an acrimonious campaign have been silenced.

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