Poll: Americans want their leaders to stand up and fight

By Major Garrett

September 21, 2010

Nearly half of America -- including nearly two-thirds of Republicans and 53 percent of independents -- admires political leaders who refuse to compromise. This is further evidence that the current political atmosphere is not merely contentious, but hostile to any hope of negotiated settlements to the many political and policy differences that define the current landscape.

In essence, the Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center, suggests a confrontational mood in the country that may mirror the partisan wrangling in Washington and might even give trumped-up cable TV's political spout-fests some rationale for their vein-popping intensity.

The survey found 49 percent of all respondents "admire political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising." The survey also found that just 42 percent "admire political leaders who make compromises with people they disagree with."

The poll, which surveyed 1,005 adults across the country by landline or cell phone, was conducted last Thursday through Sunday and has a 4-point error margin for the overall sample, with a higher error margin for subgroups. On the compromise question, whites matched the 49-42 percent split, while blacks, by 53-35 percent, favored politicians who did not compromise. Sixty-two percent of Republicans said they favored non-compromising politicians compared to 54 percent of Democrats who backed compromisers. Independents sided with non-compromisers, 53-40 percent.

Whether there is any opportunity to compromise on any issue may be of little concern to Democrats, at this point. The survey contained disturbing news for congressional Democrats on the economy, taxes and Social Security. The results show that Republicans have drawn even on the economy and Social Security while regaining their historic edge on taxes.

The economy is the mega-issue of the midterms. Taxes have become a wedge issue for Republicans as they seek to divide Democrats over whether, and to what degree, to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. As the campaign season heads into the home stretch, Democrats have increasingly used Social Security as an issue to portray insurgent Republicans -- such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Ken Buck of Colorado -- as hostile to the interests of seniors.

The survey found Republicans and Democrats practically even, at 38 percent and 37 percent, respectively, on the party voters believe will do a better job "dealing with the economy." That is the highest GOP survey number since September 2005.

The Democrats fell 5 percentage points from 42 percent in late August of 2009 and they tumbled 16 points from their all-time survey high in February 2008 -- when Bush fatigue gave them a 53-34 percent edge over Republicans. Democratic operatives reject the poll results as an indicator of the prospects in November.

"We're six weeks out -- this election isn't about abstract and generic questions on a poll. It's about real, live candidates in local races," said Brad Woodhouse, communications director of the Democratic National Committee. "The choice voters will have in those races will be between Republican candidates who want to take our country back to the exact same agenda which drove our economy into the ditch or Democrats who are doing the heavy lifting to move our country forward."

Thirty-three percent of independents said Republicans would do better on the economy, while 31 percent said that about Democrats. Whites give the GOP a nine-point edge -- 43-34 percent -- while blacks backed the Democrats 53-22 percent.

Midterm voter intensity tends to be higher among white voters and in this cycle. White men and women favor the GOP on the economy, though a gender gap does exist; among white men, the difference is most pronounced with 49 percent backing Republicans and 28 percent supporting the Democrats.

White women favor the GOP 37-32 percent. Among more highly educated whites, men with college degrees back the Republicans 59-29 percent -- a whopping 30-point differential over Democrats. White women with college degrees support both parties equally, 38 percent for each.

On taxes, 40 percent backed Republicans on that issue, compared to 34 percent for Democrats. The GOP number is the highest in survey history since September of 1998. More startling for Democrats, the 34 percent backing on taxes is the lowest since October of 1994, one month before the party lost control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. On this question -- as with the management of the economy -- Democrats can lament a similarly stark erosion of fortunes from February 2008. Back then, they enjoyed a 49-37 percent advantage over Republicans.

"The polling makes clear the direction of the country and the wishes of voters," said Doug Heye, communications director of the Republican National Committee. "After 20 months of complete Democratic control, voters -- and, significantly, independent voters -- are rejecting Democrats even on what they call their core issues."

Among independents, Republicans hold a 36-30 percent advantage on taxes. Among whites, the GOP edge is 12 points, 43-31 percent. Among blacks, Democrats enjoy a 27 point advantage, 51-24 percent. White men with college degrees back the GOP on this issue by a whopping 61-28 percent and white women with college degrees -- who sided with both parties equally on the economy -- support Republicans 45-33 percent.

Democrats must also confront unhappy news on Social Security, long a bread-and-butter issue for the party, and one that laid the foundation for Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

The survey found voters consider Republicans and Democrats tied -- at 35 percent -- on the question of which party would do a "better job taking steps to make the Social Security system financially sound."

Most disturbing for Democrats, the 35 percent number is their lowest survey performance dating back to May of 1990. In the 12 previous Pew surveys where this question has been posed, Democrats enjoyed an average advantage over Republicans of almost 10 percentage points.

Men and women diverged somewhat sharply on the question with men favoring Republicans 39-34 percent and women backing Democrats 36-30 percent.

"Republicans want to privatize Social Security, return to Bush-era economic policies with tax cuts for the rich and they want to outsource jobs overseas. Democrats want to do the exact opposite," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "When the voters hear that, these numbers [in the NJ poll] will move."

Whites sided with the GOP 40-30 percent while blacks gave Democrats a massive 52-21 percent advantage. Among older people surveyed, 36 percent of those aged 50-64 had more confidence in Democrats, while 34 percent said that about Republicans. Thirty-seven percent of those people 65 and older preferred Republican, while 34 percent preferred Democrats on Social Security.

Higher wage earners tended to favor the GOP. Those earning more than $75,000 backed the GOP, 41-34 percent. Those earning between $30,000 and $74,999 divided equally between the parties at 37 percent each, while those earning less than $30,000 preferred the Democrats' approach, 37-28 percent.

"The erosion in these numbers spells trouble for Democrats with two key demographic groups -- seniors and independents," said Ken Spain, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Democrats say voters will pass judgment on both parties this November, and that will help their chances: "Republicans will be on the ballot, too. And the more voters learn about them, the more they realize they don't want to return to the failed Bush economic policies of the past," said Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "In state after state, Republicans continue to nominate extremists who care more about enacting a strict social doctrine than addressing the economic challenges facing working people. That's why you see our candidates stand in stark contrast focused on jobs, the economy and the deficit."

By Major Garrett

September 21, 2010