Governance poll: What does the public think?

In early February, 2020, George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, Department of Political Science, and Graduate School of Political Management sponsored a nationwide poll of 1,200 respondents to better understand the thoughts and fears of Americans on a host of political issues.

The poll contained many commonly asked questions and received responses much in line with what we have grown used to. For example, forty three percent of voters approve of President Trump job performance while only 15% feel the same way about Congress.

But the battery also included a litany of rarely asked questions that allow for interesting insights into how voters feel about certain candidates and parties, the state of our institutions, and even the degree to which voters fear misinformation in our politics. (More information on the poll, including its methodology, can be found here.)

Below are three quick takeaways from the most recent GW Politics Poll.

  1. Everyone supports democratic ideals. Mostly.

First let’s start with the good news: the public expressed strong across the board support for check and balance and other hallmarks of our democracy (See figure above). No matter if respondents are registered Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, the vast majority agreed that most of the cherished aspects of our democracy are very important to maintaining a strong U.S. democracy. For example, free and fair elections are very important to over 90 percent of each of the party classifications, and maintaining strong checks and balances are very important to at least 75 percent of each party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given President Trump’s regular media bashing, only 39 percent of self-identified Republicans characterized the right of the media to criticize political leaders as ‘very important.’ This was the only response out of all five democracy characteristics that registered below 50 percent. Sixty seven percent of GOP respondents, however, agreed that media freedom to criticize leaders was at least somewhat important. Overall, despite the rancorous rhetoric, support is generally strong across parties on fundamental tenets of our democracy.

  1. Compromise or stick to your guns? Yes.

When asked if they favored elected officials who make compromises or lawmakers who stuck to their guns, respondents were split exactly down the middle—600 said they prefer compromisers, 600 said they like officials who won’t waver from their stances. The splits remained close even after factoring in the respondents’ levels of political interest: 53% of those who follow politics most of the time like their officials to seek compromise while 47% of similarly engaged respondents favored lawmakers who keep to their positions.

But we begin to see some marked divergence when the sample is split based on a five point ideological scale (very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, very conservative). Unsurprisingly, 59% of the both groups at the extremes—very liberal and very conservative—said they prefer lawmakers who stick to their guns while nearly 63% of moderates say they want officials who compromise. More interestingly, 72% of liberal respondents want lawmakers who seek compromise while only 35% of conservatives favored compromisers.

It is likely the difference in responses between very liberals and liberals on how much they want compromise reflects the sentiments voiced in the ongoing Democratic presidential nomination fight between the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and the more moderate track now led by Joe Biden. A segment of Bernie supporters are known for their strident rejection of the status quo and their desire to revolutionize governance in the United States. Such a message leaves little room for compromise, even within the Democratic party, let alone across the aisle. Biden, in contrast, has regularly touted his ability and history to forge bipartisan compromises.

The Republican side paints a cleaner picture. Conservative and very conservative respondents want their lawmakers, undoubtedly led by President Trump, to avoid compromise and to stick to their guns.

  1. Democratic confusion part deux

Respondents who identified as Democrats or Independent leaning Democrats were asked if they would like to see Democratic leaders in Washington move in a more liberal or a more moderate direction. And as another indication that there are two intra-party cohorts under the broader Democratic party umbrella, 38% wanted a more liberal direction and 35% wanted a more moderate direction (15% wanted no change and 12% didn’t know).

But, it gets more interesting. When respondents were asked if they wanted party leaders to move in a more liberal or moderate direction on five specific issues —economic, moral (LGBTQ, abortion), racial, and environmental— large pluralities wanted the party to move further to the left on four of them. Only on defense issues (i.e., military spending, homeland security) did more respondents favor a more moderate direction.

Of course, these specific five issues have clearly delineated party positions. That is, it’s no surprise that liberal-leaning voters want more liberal policies on the minimum wage, police reform, and climate change and conservative leaning repondents just the opposite. But, it’s important to remember that the question asks respondents whether they want Democratic leaders to move in a more liberal or moderate direction. That is, they aren’t being asked if they want the current state of policies on a given issue to move further to the left.

The polling results suggest that half of the Democratic party may want moderation in theory (and may even fear the party being dragged too far to the left for a presidential electoral victory), but voters want their leaders to pursue more liberal policies on specific issues. Results such as these create a tightrope for Democratic leaders and presidential hopefuls to walk, especially as standard bearers of a national party where definitions of liberal vary considerably across the country.

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