Maybe Mitt Romney had a point. For all the uproar over Romney’s secretly videotaped comments essentially writing off 47 percent of the American public as moochers, and for all the pronouncements that his gaffe-ridden, or “inelegant,” campaign is toast, the demoralized Republican camp can perhaps find a glimmer of hope in the results of a new voter survey released Monday by The Pew Research Center.
The survey found that 87 percent of registered voters say the economy will be very important in determining their vote and 83 percent say the jobs picture will be a similar priority. Those two issues have stayed at the top of voters’ minds, as they were in 2008, while matters such as energy, terrorism and immigration have fallen in importance compared to 2008.
While perceptions of the economy and Obama’s handling of it have improved in recent polls, the Romney campaign scored on another point: the voting public’s continuing preference for smaller government. The Pew survey found that 56 percent of registered voters prefer a smaller government providing fewer services, while 35 percent say they want a bigger government providing more services. Four years ago, according to Pew, the split between those two views was significantly narrower, with opinion favoring smaller government by 46 percent to 40 percent.
Just as important for Romney, opinions about the size of government actually correlate with voting decisions more than in election cycles dating back to 1976, the Pew survey found. “This gap in terms of the correlation with the vote has been around for a long time, but it’s never been larger,” says Pew’s Carroll Doherty. “This divides Obama and Romney voters perhaps more cleanly than any other issue.”
GALLUP CHIMES IN
The Pew findings follow a Gallup poll released a week ago that also suggests that Romney’s anti-government line might find favor with a majority of Americans. That poll, conducted from September 6 to 9 – well before news of the Romney video had spread – asked 1,017 U.S. adults whether the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses or should be doing more “to solve our country’s problems.” It found that 54 percent said the government is doing too much – about the same as the 53-plus percent Romney was, in essence, referring to as reachable – while 39 percent say the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.
And while the partisan split on the question is predictable – 82 percent of Republicans say it’s doing too much, while 67 percent of Democrats say it should do more – independents tend to fall on the side of smaller government, with 62 percent in the Gallup poll agreeing that government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Only 29 percent believe the government should be doing more.
Pollsters note that Americans have consistently tended to prefer the idea of smaller government, and only rarely have said that government should do more. “Other people have asked this question over the years and for the most part, with few exceptions, you get majorities on the side of smaller government with fewer services,” says Pew’s Carroll Doherty.
IT’S ALL BEEN SAID BEFORE
The proper size and role of government has been the subject of public and political debate in the U.S. since even before the country was founded and has come to the fore again and again over the last 50 years. Romney’s themes are certainly familiar. In accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the original “Mr. Conservative” – said, “I know that the road to freedom is a long and a challenging road. I know also that some men may walk away from it, that some men resist challenge, accepting the false security of governmental paternalism…. We must assure a society here which, while never abandoning the needy or forsaking the helpless, nurtures incentives and opportunity for the creative and the productive.”
And with the country mired in economic malaise, President Reagan famously told the nation in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."
Romney may not seem the likeliest of candidates to carry that mantle, but he has tried to capitalize on those sentiments and shift his videotaped “47 percent” comments – which even conservatives like Bill Kristol derided as “arrogant and stupid” – back into a broader battle about the role of government. In the days since the videotape was posted on the website of Mother Jones magazine, Romney has sought to draw a sharp contrast between what he calls Obama’s “government-centric” view and his own view that “government works best when it creates the space for individuals and families to pursue success and achieve great things.”
“The president's vision is one of a larger and larger government with trillion-dollar deficits that promises everything to everyone,” Romney told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired Sunday. “That's the course that he has laid out. His policy for the economy is more stimulus, more government spending. My course is very different than that. Mine says make government smaller. Don't build these massive deficits that pass debt on to our kids, rebuild the foundation of America's strength with great homes, great schools, with entrepreneurship and innovation. Keep government as a, if you will, facilitator of freedom in America. But don't have government take away the rights and the freedoms of the American people.”
The Gallup poll suggests Romney may have work to do in convincing Americans, though, as the portion of Americans who want government to do less has fallen from 61 percent earlier this summer. And Americans seem evenly divided, according to Gallup, on whether government has too much power, with a slim majority saying that it does – down from 59 percent in 2010.
The bigger problem Romney may face is the inevitable need to get specific about cuts, because while a majority of Americans may like the idea of shrinking government it’s much harder to find a consensus on where and how much to slash. “When you get to the specifics of how to reduce the size of government there’s a lot more disagreement,” says Doherty. “The public still has a long way to go in terms of making that leap from support of smaller government in principle to actually supporting cuts in specific programs.”
Reagan succeeded by keeping the debate “at a philosophical level,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “I don’t think Romney has been as skilled,” he says. Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate hasn’t helped, Zelizer says, because it brought Ryan’s specific proposals for Medicare and the federal budget into the campaign. “It’s about the framing,” says Zelizer. “Mitt Romney is trying hard to get away from some of the particulars and hoping to gain traction again that way.”