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Fiscal Issues Remain the Dominant Concern of Voters; Independents Prefer Conservative Policy Approaches on Spending, Energy, Education, and Health Care Posted on January 20, 2011 | Polling Analysis


Independent voters, who drove the Republican wave in the 2010 election, continue to prefer conservative over liberal policies on fiscal issues, energy, education, and health care. As was the case throughout the fall campaign, Independents look a lot more like Republicans than Democrats in their policy choices, even when considering the broader sample of registered voters.


Voters are firm in support of spending cuts, coming down overwhelmingly on the side of less spending in a series of questions focused on fiscal policy, including cutting spending to 2008 levels, cancelling unspent stimulus funds and freezing pay for Federal workers.


In the wake of extending the Bush tax cuts and his speech in response to the Tucson shooting tragedy, President Obama's job approval has moved back across the 50 percent mark among registered voters, now standing at 53 to 44 percent. Independents split right down the middle, with 47 percent each approving and disapproving. Nevertheless, the President leads a generic Republican for reelection by only three points, 43 to 40 percent, with a plurality of Independents preferring the generic Republican, 39 to 33 percent.

The Overall Political Climate

  1. Independents and Republicans continue to say the country is off on the wrong track by wide margins. Voters overall say the country is off on the wrong track by a 57 to 34 percent margin, including a 64 to 24 percent margin among Independents and an 81 to 13 percent margin among Republicans (Democrats say the country is heading in the right direction by a 61 to 29 percent margin). Our post-election survey conducted jointly with Democracy Corps found that 2010 voters said the country was on the wrong track by a 66 to 26 percent margin, including a 79 to 14 percent margin among Independents and a 92 to 4 percent margin among Republicans.
  2. The economy remains the most important problem, with Independents and Republicans saying their family’s financial situation has gotten worse in the last two years. Nearly half of registered voters (48 percent) cite the economy as the most important problem, consistent with results from the last several years. Overall, 42 percent of voters say their family’s economic situation is about the same as two years ago (36 percent of Republicans, 38 percent of Independents, and 49 percent of Democrats) and 38 percent say their economic situation is worse than two years ago (52 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of Independents, and 25 percent of Democrats).
  3. Three-fifths of voters now hold the Obama Administration at least somewhat responsible for the current state of the economy. Twenty-two percent of voters say the Obama Administration is very responsible for the current state of the economy and 41 percent say the Administration is somewhat responsible.
  4. Majorities of Independents and Republicans say the “government is trying to do more things than it can do well, things that should be left to the private sector and individuals.” Democrats say “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” by a 72 to 22 percent margin, driving an overall margin of 49 to 46 percent. But Independents (53 to 40 percent) agree with Republicans (69 to 29 percent) that government is doing too much.
  5. Independents view the Tea Party Movement and Republicans in Congress more favorably than Democrats in Congress. Overall, voters view the Tea Party Movement slightly unfavorably: by a 38 to 42 percent favorable to unfavorable margin, but with a net-positive image among Republicans (71 to 12 percent) and Independents (41 to 39 percent). Republicans in Congress have a net favorable rating overall, 45 to 42 percent, including a 44 to 40 percent rating among Independents. With an upside-down margin of 31 to 56 percent, Democrats in Congress remain on the wrong side of Independents and draw a split rating overall, 45 to 46 percent.
  6. President Obama’s job approval has improved since the mid-term elections in November. The President has seen improvement among these registered voters, with a good month including working with Republicans in Congress to extend tax cuts and a well-received speech in Tucson after the tragic Arizona shooting. He currently holds a 53 to 44 percent job approval rating (compared to 44 to 52 percent among 2010 voters in November) and a 55 to 41 percent favorable to unfavorable rating. Nancy Pelosi (32 to 52 percent favorable to unfavorable) and Harry Reid (21 to 34 percent favorable to unfavorable) have not seen similar improvements since the election.
  7. Despite improvement in his approval rating, President Obama leads a generic Republican by just three points, and falls well below 50 percent. President Obama holds a 43 to 40 percent lead over a generic Republican, trailing 39 to 33 percent among Independent voters.

Fiscal Issues

  1. By a two-to-one margin, voters say the federal government’s higher priority should be spending less to reduce the budget deficit rather than spending more to help the economy recover. Voters say the government should spend less by a 61 to 31 percent margin overall, including an 82 to 13 percent margin among Republicans and a 69 to 24 percent margin among Independents. While Democrats say the government should spend more by a 53 to 38 percent margin, the two-fifths of Democrats who prefer cutting spending indicates substantial appetite for deficit reduction.
  2. As Congress prepares to address the federal debt limit, two-thirds of voters prefer an option that includes either “drastic” or “substantial” spending cuts. Presented with three options, voters were split among the top two choices: 34 percent say the national debt limit should not be raised “even if that means forcing a choice between drastic spending cuts or defaulting on current obligations,” and 32 percent say the debt limit should be raised, but “only in exchange for substantial spending cuts.” Twenty-four percent say the debt limit should be raised, but not tied to spending cuts because “we cannot afford to short-change the investments needed to stimulate the economy.”

    Even 57 percent of Democrats prefer an option with some form of spending cuts, 24 percent favor “drastic” spending cuts instead of an increase in the debt limit and 33 percent say it should be raised but tied to “substantial” spending cuts. Nearly 7 of 10 Independents prefer a solution that highlights spending cuts, 35 percent favor “drastic” spending cuts instead of an increase in the debt limit and 34 percent say the debt limit should be raised only if “substantial” spending cuts are made. A plurality of Republicans says the limit should not be raised (46 percent, with 29 percent saying it should be raised but tied to spending cuts).

  3. Voters – including majorities of Independents – agree with statements that we should cut spending levels to 2008 levels. When given the following pair of statements, voters agree that spending should be cut by a 55 to 30 percent margin, including a 67 to 29 percent margin among Independents:

    Congressman A says we should not cut current spending to 2008 levels. The federal government has to do more during times of economic crisis, and spending by the government stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

    Congressman B says we should cut current spending to 2008 levels, before the stimulus and bailout bills were passed. Individuals and families are making do with less, and the government needs to do the same to reduce the budget deficit.

    Keeping the same argument against cutting current spending, but changing the focus of the argument for cuts to excessive spending hurting the economy yields a 50 to 41 percent margin supporting cuts, including 51 to 38 percent among Independents.

    Congressman B says we should cut current spending to 2008 levels, before the stimulus and bailout bills were passed. Excessive Federal spending and too much government has become a drag on the private sector economy, and threatens long-term prosperity.

    Congressman B says we should cut current spending to 2008 levels, before the stimulus and bailout bills were passed. Excessive Federal spending and too much government has become a drag on the private sector economy, and threatens long-term prosperity.

  4. A majority of voters supports cancelling unspent stimulus money to reduce the deficit. Voters prefer cancelling the unspent stimulus money to reduce the deficit by a 50 to 43 percent margin, including a 52 to 38 percent margin among Independents.
  5. Voters across party lines support a pay freeze for Federal workers. Voters overall support a pay freeze for Federal employees by a 73 to 20 percent margin, including a 72 to 20 percent margin among Republicans, a 74 to 19 percent margin among Independents, and a 75 to 19 percent margin among Democrats.

Social Security

  1. A majority of voters – including a plurality of Democrats – agrees that Social Security needs major reforms. Respondents were asked which of the following two statements they agree with more regarding Social Security:

    Congressman A says that Social Security needs only minor reforms, with the primary goal being protecting benefits for seniors. Reforms like raising the retirement age or limiting benefits will break faith with workers who have paid into the system for decades.

    Congressman B says Social Security needs major reforms in order to maintain the long-term viability of the program and save the federal budget. We need to consider raising the retirement age for younger workers, as well as limiting benefits for wealthy retirees.

    Voters agree that Social Security needs major reform by a 52 to 39 percent margin overall, including a 58 to 33 percent margin among Republicans, a 56 to 37 percent margin among Independents, and a 48 to 44 percent margin among Democrats.

Energy

  1. Over three-fifths of voters say we need more offshore drilling, including a majority of Democratic voters. Voters overall agree that “we should not let one bad accident in the Gulf divert us from the importance of more offshore drilling to create jobs and make us less dependent on foreign oil” by a 63 to 33 percent margin, including a 51 to 42 percent margin among Democrats, a 62 to 33 percent margin among Independents, and a 79 to 18 percent margin among Republicans.
  2. Voters agree that “we should provide loan guarantees to stimulate construction of more nuclear plants, and open the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada for nuclear waste.” Voters agree with this statement, rather than “the government should not encourage the building of more nuclear power plants in the U.S.” by a 52 to 40 percent margin overall, including a 54 to 37 percent margin among Independents and a 65 to 28 percent margin among Republicans. Democrats agree with the anti-nuclear statement by a 51 to 39 percent margin.

Education

  1. Majorities of Republicans and Independents oppose teacher tenure for elementary and secondary education. Overall, voters agree that tenure “provides no incentive for teachers to improve their performance, and makes it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers” rather than “we need benefits like teacher tenure to reward teachers and help attract qualified people to the profession” by a 49 to 45 percent margin, including a 61 to 33 percent margin among Republicans and a 57 to 39 percent margin among Independents (Democrats agree that tenure is needed by a 59 to 34 percent margin).
  2. Voters overall approach a split on merit pay, with Independents and Republicans saying teacher pay should be tied to student performance. Even against an argument that “given the many factors that affect student achievement like the home environment, it is unfair to tie teacher pay to student performance,” voters support merit pay by a 48 to 45 percent margin, including a 51 to 43 percent margin among Independents and a 54 to 41 percent margin among Republicans.

    Last June, we tested the same anti-merit pay argument against a pro-merit argument stating “teachers whose students learn more should be paid more, and teachers whose students learn less should be paid less,” and found opposition to merit pay by a 51 to 42 percent margin. Merit pay supporters are far better served by the argument that “teachers whose students learn more should be paid more, in order to attract good teachers and improve accountability.”

Health Care

  1. A plurality of registered voters (49 to 44 percent) supports Republican plans to repeal and replace the health care reform bill, including a majority of Independents (54 to 36 percent support). Voters support repealing and replacing the bill by a 49 to 44 percent margin, with Independents supporting repeal and replace by a 54 to 36 percent margin. Overall intensity is balanced (37 percent strongly support and 34 percent strongly oppose), with Independents more intense in their preference for repeal (39 percent strongly support and 24 percent strongly oppose). Voters aren’t swayed one way or the other by arguments for and against repealing and replacing the law (50 to 44 percent overall), suggesting that they have already absorbed enough information on the subject and are settled in their views.

    Overall, Independents’ support of plans to repeal and replace the health care law has remained steady since the midterm elections, even when comparing Independents who voted in 2010 and the broader cohort of Independents who are registered voters (54 to 36 percent support today compared to 57 to 31 percent support in November). When given arguments for and against repeal, the margin among Independents is identical to our post-election survey (51 to 40 percent today compared to 53 to 42 percent in November). Recent public polling has shown a slight positive bump in President Obama’s job approval, yet that increase has not closed the gap he faces among Independents on his signature domestic initiative.

  2. Majorities of voters prefer conservative policy approaches to health care reform on the other questions tested. These voters:
    • Agree that people should be allowed to buy health insurance across state lines by a 70 to 23 percent margin (up from a 67 to 26 percent margin last June);
    • Oppose an individual mandate to purchase health insurance by a 56 to 39 percent margin (58 to 35 percent in June 2009);
    • Support individual ownership of health insurance so that people would not lose their insurance if they lost their job by a 53 to 36 percent margin (56 to 34 percent in June 2009);
    • Say that frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits significantly drive up the cost of health care by a 53 to 38 percent margin (52 to 36 percent last June);
    • Oppose allowing any taxpayer dollars to fund abortions by a 52 to 41 percent margin.

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