November 21, 2012

Post-election America still divided

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to CNN

The election is over. The voters have spoken. Now the work begins. But there is little evidence that the American public wants its leaders to put aside their partisan differences now that the campaigning is finished.

The most pressing economic policy issue confronting Congress and the White House is, undoubtedly, the end-of-the-year deadline for agreeing on a comprehensive plan to reduce the U.S. deficit and debt. Barring agreement, automatic spending cuts and tax increases will kick in, possibly triggering a recession.

Americans are united in their worries about the adverse economic impact of hurdling over this “fiscal cliff.” But they remain divided over what to do about this challenge. And, more broadly, they disagree about the need for their leaders to compromise and about the future political direction of their parties.

About two-thirds of the public think that automatic tax increases and spending cuts will have a major effect on the economy and 62 percent say it will be negative, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. They are more worried about the impact on the nation than they are about the consequences for their own financial situation, which may reflect the fact that 40 percent say they do not well understand the potential impact of going over the fiscal cliff.

Despite their concern, just over half of the public does not think that President Obama and the Republican members of Congress can reach an agreement to avert going over the cliff. Two-thirds of Republicans surveyed are particularly pessimistic about a deal.

Their doubts may reflect their own ambivalence: while most agree with the general principle that deficit reduction will require a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, there are few specific fiscal remedies that garner much support.

Among a dozen specific options for reducing the debt and deficit, only two win majority approval from the public – raising taxes on annual incomes over $250,000 (64 percent approve) and limiting corporate tax deductions (58 percent), according to an October 2012 Pew Research Center poll. Just over half oppose cuts in defense spending or an increase in the eligibility age for Social Security, and people are divided over other options that have been suggested, such as means testing Medicare benefits or limiting mortgage interest deductions.

Pessimism about resolving the impasse over the fiscal cliff may also be a byproduct of the continuing partisan divide among the public.

Broad majorities of all voters say they want Barack Obama (72 percent) and the Republican leadership (67 percent) to work with the other side to get things done over the coming year. But the principle supporters of bipartisanship are independents. Each party’s political base, meanwhile, sends another signal. Half of Republicans want GOP leaders to stand up to Obama, even if less gets done. And just 54 percent of Democrats want the president to try to work with Republicans.

All this means that the prospects for bridging this divide may be slim, with two-thirds of voters saying they think partisan relations are likely to stay about the same or get worse.

But even that may prove optimistic. Fully 60 percent of Republican voters and 70 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans want the GOP to move in a more conservative direction, while over half of Democrats want their party to move in a more moderate direction. And even liberal Democrats are divided on their party’s course.

Those who thought that a clear-cut verdict in the recent presidential election would finally break the partisan deadlock in Washington may find themselves disappointed. Facing the first post-election national policy debate, the public’s avowed support for bipartisanship is belied by continued divisions over how to tackle the country’s fiscal woes, Republican voters’ distaste for working across the aisle and a GOP desire for their party to become even more conservative.

As the French say: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Cite this publication: “Post-election America still divided.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 21, 2012) http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/11/21/post-election-america-still-divided/, accessed on July 22, 2014.