Fiscal Divide Widens as Voters Dig in Their Heels
Policy + Politics

Fiscal Divide Widens as Voters Dig in Their Heels

Americans tout the importance of bipartisanship, but finding common ground on big fiscal issues will be a leap of faith for Democratic and Republican voters. 

When the Pew Research Center asked Americans this spring to name the one word that best describes Congress, 86 percent had something negative to say — with “dysfunctional”  leading the list. Many volunteered words like corrupt, selfish, gridlock and incompetent. In early October, 77 percent said that Democratic and GOP lawmakers in Washington had been bickering more than usual rather than working together to solve problems.

The public may not be high on the ability of Congress to  work together but a Washington Post/ Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll released last week showed that the philosophical differences between Democratic and Republican voters have also become more pronounced over the past 10 years.

An extensive review of the latest polling data suggests that on issues ranging from taxes, spending and controlling the deficit to health care and how to fix Social Security and other entitlement programs, Republican and Democratic voters are far apart.

The role of government: Division over the role and scope of the federal government is at the heart of the ideological cleavage between Republicans and Democrats. Seventy percent of Democrats would prefer a “federal government which provides more services, even if it costs more in taxes,” compared to only 24 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of Tea Party supporters. At the same time, 80 percent of Tea Party supporters, 71 percent of Republicans, but only 26 percent of Democrats, prefer “federal government which costs less in taxes but provides fewer services.”

Spending, taxes and deficits: Spending by the federal government is another issue  sharply dividing the electorate,  and one on which Tea Party supporters are particularly strident. By 67 percent to 26 percent, Democrats favor “federal job creation even if it contributes to the deficit” while Republicans break 33 percent to 64 percent against that proposition. And a full 80 percent of Tea Party supporters oppose federal job creation if it contributed to the deficit.

CBS News pollsters took spending out of the equation and posed a tradeoff between reducing the deficit and cutting taxes, asking: “If you had to choose, would you prefer reducing the federal budget deficit or cutting taxes?” Fifty-seven percent of Democratic voters preferred reducing the deficit while 35 percent preferred cutting taxes. Among Republicans, 43 percent favored deficit reduction and 53 percent opted for tax cuts. Tea Party supporters were even more in favor of tax cuts; by 56 percent to 36 percent they would chose them over policies to reduce the deficit.

Entitlements: There is broad consensus among the electorate on two points: that Social Security and Medicare are “worth the costs to taxpayers” and that the cost of these programs will cause major economic problems.

However, Democrats and Republicans are far apart on several possible ways to “fix” the problem of entitlement spending that were identified by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.  Sixty percent of Democrats, but only 29 percent of Republicans, favor raising taxes to address shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare; and 41 percent of Republicans, but only 22 percent of Democrats, favor cutting benefits. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats favor solutions which would disproportionately impact wealthier Americans, although limiting benefits for high-income workers is more popular with Democrats (71 percent) than with Republicans (55 percent), according to a July Gallup poll

Health care reform: Few Democratic candidates have campaigned on the landmark health care legislation passed in March, although two-thirds of Democratic voters support the bill. Some 70 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Tea Party supporters oppose the legislation and 62 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Tea Party supporters say they would vote against a candidate who favored the health care reforms.