Released: January 22, 2007
Broad Support for Political Compromise in Washington
But Many Are Hesitant to Yield on Contentious Issues
Summary of Findings
A survey conducted in association with National Public Radio
A large majority of the American public thinks the country is more politically polarized than in the past, and an even greater number expresses a strong desire for political compromise. Fully three-quarters say they like political leaders who are willing to compromise, compared with 21% who see this as a negative trait. Moreover, a solid majority favors compromise when it comes to the most important issues of the day, even by the political party that they think most capable of handling these issues.
And after an election in which voters in the middle of the electorate proved decisive, there are signs of the public’s continuing preference for political moderation. Majorities dislike political leaders who take liberal positions on nearly all issues (62%) as well as political leaders who take conservative positions on nearly all issues (57%). Instead, by roughly two-to-one (60% to 34%), more Americans like leaders who take a mix of conservative and liberal positions.
Nonetheless, the public is skeptical about current prospects for increased bipartisanship in Washington. Few see signs that relations between Democrats and Republicans are getting better, and many themselves are hesitant to compromise on contentious political issues.
The public’s taste for compromise and moderation is limited by several factors. First, while political leaders who are willing to compromise are viewed as appealing, so too are those who demonstrate political conviction. Two-thirds say they like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular. There also is much greater support for compromise in principle than there is on contentious issues, such as the war in Iraq and abortion policy. On abortion, 72% of those who favor either party’s stance on the issue say that party should stick to its position, even if that means less progress is achieved.
In addition, the country’s lingering political bitterness complicates efforts at compromise, particularly between Democrats and President Bush. A majority of Democrats (54%) continue to say they want party leaders to “stand up” to President Bush, even if that means less gets done in Washington. By comparison, when the question is whether to compromise with Republicans rather than the president, Democrats express much greater willingness to find common ground.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 10-15 among 1,708 Americans, finds that despite the sweeping changes in Washington, the public remains dubious about prospects for bipartisanship. Only about a quarter (28%) believes that relations between the two parties will improve over the next year. And while the new Congress is less than a month old, just 39% believe Democratic leaders are making an effort to reach out to Republicans on policy solutions, and even fewer see President Bush reaching out to Democrats (33%).
In general, people who live in the 30 congressional districts that swung from the GOP to the Democrats in November’s midterms have similar opinions about political compromise and the possibilities for greater harmony in Washington. If anything, people in these closely contested districts are slightly more likely than people living elsewhere to see the country as more politically divided. But like those in other areas, they have high regard for political leaders who make compromises, as well as those who stand on principle.
The survey shows that, at this early stage in the 2008 presidential campaign, more Americans express a preference for voting for a moderate candidate – particularly a moderate Democrat – than a candidate from the left or the right. Overall, about a third (32%) say they most want to vote for a moderate Democrat, and nearly half (48%) would vote for a moderate from either party.
More than twice as many Democrats want to vote for a moderate from the party rather than a liberal (by 59% to 28%), while Republicans are evenly split between backing a conservative or moderate Republican (40% each). Nearly half of independents (45%) say they most want to vote for a moderate – either a Democrat (28%) or a Republican (17%). Yet independents also are leaning heavily Democratic in their 2008 choices – by 44%-29%, more independents say they want to vote for a Democrat (either moderate or liberal) than a Republican.
The survey finds that the war in Iraq is not only dominating the political landscape, it is overshadowing other major issues. When asked in an open-ended format to name the most important problem facing the country, 42% of the public volunteers the Iraq war. That nearly equals the highest percentage citing any single issue in a Pew Research Center trend dating back nearly two decades; in Jan. 1992, 43% of Americans said the economy was the most important problem facing the country.
The growing concerns about the war are underscored by the fact that the next most frequently named problems — the cost of health care and dissatisfaction with the government — were named by just 8% of respondents. Every other issue, from the economy to immigration to the budget deficit, ranked even further down the public’s list of leading concerns. In addition, the war is complicating the Democrats’ efforts to spotlight their so-called 100-hour policy agenda. When asked to name a policy or priority the Democrats have put forward, a majority (54%) was unable to name any policy; 27% said the Iraq war or mentioned proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, while 18% cited efforts to raise the minimum wage.
Pew’s annual list of the public’s policy priorities for the president and Congress shows little change from recent years. As in the past, defending the country against terrorism and improving educational system rate as leading priorities, with cutting health care costs also a major goal. Democrats and Republicans remain far apart in their view of the salience of most major issues, and in some cases those divisions have widened considerably over the past year. Many more Republicans than Democrats rate defending the country against terrorism as a top priority; by contrast, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans view raising the minimum wage as a major priority for Washington policymakers.
More broadly, it is clear that Iraq, and foreign policy issues generally, have greater importance than they did just a few months ago. Four-in-ten Americans say it is more important for the president to focus on foreign issues, rather than domestic concerns. In previous surveys since 2002, at least half had said it was more important for Bush to focus on domestic matters.
The percentage of Americans volunteering the war in Iraq as the nation’s most important problem has risen 17 points since September (from 25%); a year ago, 23% volunteered Iraq as the biggest problem facing the country. With so much focus on Iraq, other issues that have rated as major problems in recent years – notably, the economy and terrorism – have fallen in importance.
Just 5% volunteer the economy as the top national problem, down from 11% last January and 20% in January 2004. The percentage citing terrorism is about the same as it was a year ago (5% now, 6% then); however, terrorism concerns are now far lower than they were in September 2006 (14%), following the foiling of a reported plot against transatlantic airliners and a series of speeches on terrorism by President Bush.
Overall, the percentage naming foreign or international issues far exceeds the number mentioning economic concerns, by a staggering 50%-15% margin. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, foreign and international issues have been mentioned far more frequently than domestic concerns, but never by such a wide margin.
The Iraq war is viewed as a more pressing issue by Democrats than by Republicans – 54% of Democrats named this issue as the most important problem compared to 33% of Republicans. By contrast, far more Republicans than Democrats cite terrorism as the biggest problem facing the country (10% of Republicans vs. 2% of Democrats).
Democratic Advantage on the War
When asked which party can do a better job of handling the nation’s problems, those who cite Iraq as a top concern chose the Democrats over the Republicans by a nearly three-to-one margin (52%-18%). The gap between the parties has increased significantly since last year, not because the public now has more confidence in the Democratic Party, but because fewer favor the Republicans and more see no difference between the two parties.
Among those who cite health care, dissatisfaction with the political system, and the economy as the nation’s most important problems, the Democrats also enjoy sizable advantages over the Republicans. Among those who name terrorism, homeland security or national defense as the most important problem facing the country, 59% say the Republican Party could do a better job, compared with only 23% said the Democratic Party could do a better job. However, the number citing terrorism and security concerns as the most important problem has declined in recent years. The Republicans also are viewed as the party better able to handle immigration (by 36%-23%), but just 5% cite immigration as the biggest problem facing the country.
Little Change in Public Priorities
Despite the change in congressional leadership in Washington, the public’s hierarchy of policy priorities remains largely the same as it was in January 2006. Defending the U.S. against terrorism remains the highest priority for the American public: 80% say this should be a top priority for President Bush and Congress this year. This is unchanged from last year. Protecting against terrorism has been the top priority each year since the 9/11 attacks.
Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say improving the nation’s educational system should be a top priority for the president and Congress. About as many (68% each) cite strengthening the nation’s economy and reducing health care costs as major priorities. Among health care issues, more Americans rate reducing health care costs as a top priority than say the same about providing health insurance to the uninsured (68% vs. 56%).
Though entitlement reform does not seem to be at the top of the agenda in Washington these days, the public maintains a strong interest in this issue. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say taking steps to make the Social Security system financially sound should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, and 63% say the same about making the Medicare system financially sound.
The percentage of Americans who cite reducing crime as a major priority is unchanged from January 2006 (62%). Crime concern rose substantially between 2005 and 2006; in January 2005, 53% rated reducing crime as a top priority. Despite this increase, far fewer people view reducing crime as a top priority than did so in the mid-1990s (78% in December 1994), or in January 2001 (76%).
Public concern over energy and the environment also has been stable: 57% of Americans say that dealing with the nation’s energy problem should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, compared with 58% last year. Similarly, 57% say protecting the environment should be a top priority (unchanged from last year). However, the issue of global warming rates far lower in importance. Just 38% say that dealing with global warming should be a top policy priority.
Concern over the nation’s employment situation has eased somewhat since last year. While a 57% majority says improving the job situation should be a top priority, this is down from 65% at this time last year. Not all Americans are feeling better about the job situation, however. People with relatively low annual household incomes (less than $20,000) have always placed the highest priority on jobs, and they remain as concerned today as they were a year ago. It is those with higher household incomes ($50,000 or more) who now give improving the job situation a lower priority.
When it comes to tax cuts, the public places a higher priority on cutting taxes for the middle class than it does on making the Bush Administration’s federal income tax cuts permanent. Nearly half of the public (48%) says cutting middle class tax cuts should be a top priority. Only 36% say making the Bush tax cuts permanent should be given the same priority.
At the bottom of the public’s priorities list are lobbying reform and global trade. In spite of the emphasis the new Democratic leadership in Congress has given the issue, only 35% of Americans say reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington should be a top policy priority. Just 34% say the same about dealing with global trade.
There continue to be sharp differences between Democrats and Republicans on policy priorities, with Democrats generally placing more emphasis on economic and social issues and Republicans focusing more on defense and military issues, as well as morality.
On the public’s top issue – defending the U.S. against terrorism – the partisan gap has grown wider over the past year. Fully 93% of Republicans say terrorism should be a top priority for the president and Congress, up from 86% last year. There has been virtually no change among Democrats (76% last year, 74% now). The 19-point gap between the two parties over the importance of terrorism is the largest on that issue since the 9/11 attacks.
However, Democrats and Republicans are even further apart on two issues that relate directly to employment: an increase in the minimum wage and the job situation more generally. Democrats place a much higher priority on each of these issues than do Republicans. Roughly seven-in-ten Democrats (71%) say increasing the minimum wage should be a top priority, compared with only 28% of Republicans. The gap on this issue has widened significantly since last year, mainly due to an increase in concern among Democrats. (55% last year, 71% today).
Similarly, while 67% of Democrats say improving the job situation should be a top priority, only 39% of Republicans agree. The partisan gap on this issue has widened since last year, as Republicans have become much less concerned about this issue, while the views of Democrats have remained largely unchanged. In January 2006, a solid majority of Republicans (58%) rates improving the job situation as a top priority for the president and Congress.
Democrats and Republicans also differ widely on issues relating to the poor. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say that dealing with the problems of the poor and, more specifically, providing health insurance to the uninsured should be top policy priorities.
The two groups also part company over environmental issues. Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and only 41% of Republicans say protecting the environment should be a top priority. Similarly, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans (48% vs. 23%) say dealing with global warming should be a top priority.
Aside from terrorism, Republicans attach much greater importance than Democrats to the issue of illegal immigration. Last year at this time, Republicans and Democrats expressed similar view about immigration – 56% and 51%, respectively, said that making it tougher for illegal immigrants to enter the U.S. should be a top policy priority. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Republicans rating this issue a top priority (to 63%) while Democratic views have been largely unchanged.
Republicans also place more importance on strengthening the military, though on this issue the partisan gap has gotten smaller over the past year. Today, 56% of Republicans say this should be a top priority, compared to 42% of Democrats. In January 2006, 56% of Republicans said this should be a top priority as did only 34% of Democrats.
Awareness of Democratic Priorities
Despite efforts by House Democrats to pass a series of programs in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, including more money for stem cell research and additional funds for student loans, about half (54%) could not name a policy or program being advanced by the Democrats.
At the same time, more than four-in-ten are able to volunteer a broad policy initiative or program currently being promoted by Democrats. More than a quarter (27%) identify Democrats with efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in Iraq. Another 18% are aware of Democratic plans to increase the minimum wage, one of the cornerstones of their 100-hour policy agenda. Other issues that Americans believe Democrats have put forward as legislative priorities include health care (7%), stem cell research (4%) and education (3%).
As might be expected, self-described Democrats were more likely than Republicans or political independents to be able to name a specific issue or policy being promoted by Democratic leaders in Congress. Overall, slightly more than half (52%) of all Democrats were able to volunteer a Democratic initiative, compared with 45% of all Republicans and 43% of independents.
Public Predicts Success for Democratic Leaders
Most Americans (57%) say they expect Democratic leaders to be generally successful in passing their programs into law, while 25% predict they will be unsuccessful. These opinions have changed only slightly since mid-November, shortly after the mid-term election.
Once again, partisans offer somewhat different forecasts about how successful Democratic leaders will be translating their policy priorities into law. Fully three-quarters of Democrats, but just 44% of Republicans, predict that Democratic leaders generally will be successful in getting their programs enacted.
With less than two years left in his presidency, Bush’s legacy has suffered under the strains of the continuing violence in Iraq. According to the survey, 53% of the public believes that, in the long run, the failures of the Bush administration will outweigh its accomplishments, a 17 percentage point increase since January 2004. Nearly half (45%) believe that Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president. About one-in-four (24%) see him as successful, while the remainder say it’s too early to tell or don’t know.
The public’s views on Iraq appear to play a significant role in shaping their evaluation of the Bush legacy, particularly among opponents of the war. Among the 40% who believe the U.S. made the right decision to use military force against Iraq, most (61%) say Bush will be remembered more for his accomplishments. But among the 51% who say the U.S. was wrong, eight-in-ten predict that Bush’s legacy will be more defined by his failures.
In the past three years evaluations of the Bush presidency have grown much more negative among political independents. In January 2004, just 37% of self-described political independents predicted the president would be remembered more for his failures than for his accomplishments. Today, a 59% majority of independents express this view of Bush’s presidency – a 22-point increase. Negative evaluations of Bush also rose among Republicans and Democrats, though the increases were not as precipitous.
Not unexpectedly, questions about Bush’s legacy provoke opposite reactions from Democrats and Republicans. Three-in-four Democrats (75%) predict that Bush will be judged to be an unsuccessful president and 72% believe he will be remembered more for his failures than for his successes.
Majorities of Republicans held the opposite views, though the survey suggests these GOP partisans were not quite as enthusiastic about Bush as their Democratic counterparts were critical of him: 56% of all Republicans say history will judge the Bush presidency a success and 69% predict that Bush will be remembered more for his accomplishments than his failures. For a significant minority of Republicans, the jury remains out on the Bush presidency: 33% of all GOP partisans say it is “too early to tell” whether Bush will be a successful or unsuccessful president.
The Longstanding Appeal of Compromise
Americans have long had a preference for political compromise, and this feeling has only increased over the past 20 years. The latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press values study found 79% saying they like political leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done, up from an already high 72% in 1987. The proportion saying they completely agree with this statement stands at 29%, up from 16% 20 years ago.
Throughout this timespan, Democrats have consistently expressed more support for leaders who compromise than have Republicans, and this holds true today. Fully 87% of Democrats like leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done, compared with 70% of Republicans.
Public Wants Both Compromise and Conviction
Compared with a number of other leadership characteristics, willingness to compromise stands out as particularly appealing to Americans. Fully three-quarters say they like political leaders who are willing to compromise – nearly half (49%) say they like this trait in their leaders a lot. Just 21% of Americans say this is something they dislike in their political leaders. And a 62% majority wants to see a willingness to compromise when it comes to the most important issues of the day, even from the political party that they think most capable of handling things.
But at the same time, the American public also likes leaders with the courage of their convictions. While three-in-four like leaders who are willing to compromise, two-thirds also say they like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular. Just 28% find this to be a negative trait. This conflict between compromise and conviction comes to a head when people are asked which kind of leaders they admire most. A slim majority (51%) think more highly of political leaders who make compromises, while 40% most admire those who stick to their positions.
The appeal of compromise is linked to a general distaste for ideologues. Majorities dislike political leaders who take liberal positions on nearly all issues (62%) as well as political leaders who take conservative positions on nearly all issues (57%). Instead, by roughly two-to-one (60% to 34%) most Americans like leaders who take a mix of conservative and liberal positions. And this view is widespread – a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike look favorably on politicians who take a mix of positions.
While finding a middle ground is widely appealing, the public’s taste for compromise is limited in two critical ways. First, though most support the idea of their leaders making compromises, there is more resistance when specific issues like abortion are on the table. Second, the low esteem many have for current political leaders – Democrats’ view of President Bush in particular – makes the reality of working collaboratively right now less appealing.
The Issues: Abortion
The distinction between being willing to compromise and actually giving way on specific issues is most stark when it comes to abortion. Nearly three-in-four (72%) say that the political party that most closely shares their view on abortion should stick to its position on this issue without compromising. Just a quarter say that the party should compromise so that some agreement can be reached. Even among those who think most highly of politicians who are willing to compromise, just 30% want compromise on this issue, while more than two-thirds (68%) are unwilling to bend.
Resistance to compromise on abortion is high on both sides of the issue – 69% of those who favor the Democrats on this issue say the party should stick its position, as do 76% of those who say the GOP more closely represents their views. Over the past decade, the public’s views on abortion have become even more rigid. In 1997, 30% of Americans said the party they supported should be willing to compromise; today that has fallen to 25%. Among those who side with the Republican Party, the percent willing to compromise on the issue has fallen 10 points from 32% to 22% since 1997, while it has dropped just two points (from 29% to 27%) among people who say the Democrats best represent their views on abortion.
The Issues: Environment, Taxes, Immigration
There is considerably more support for compromise on other major issues of the day. A 54% majority is willing to see leaders who share their views on the environment come to a compromise in order to reach some agreement, though even here, 43% are not. Even among those who most admire willingness to compromise in political leaders, 39% see no room for compromise on this issue.
On many issues, openness to compromise is inversely linked to the importance people place on the issue. In the case of the environment, just 41% of those who rate environmental issues as a top priority are willing to see the party that best represents their view on this issue compromise with the other party. By contrast, 59% of those who rate this as a lower priority say the party they most agree with should be willing to compromise on the environment so that the parties can reach some agreement.
Public reactions to the issues of illegal immigration and taxes follow a similar pattern. Overall, about half of those who view these issues as top priorities are unwilling to see the party that shares their views compromise with the other party in order to come to an agreement. Those who attach less importance to illegal immigration and taxes are more open to compromise.
There is a notable difference in willingness to compromise on immigration across party lines. Among people who say the Democratic Party best reflects their views, 56% are willing to see the party compromise in order to come to some agreement. However, among those who side with the Republicans, just 44% are willing to compromise, while 53% say the party should stick to its positions.
This pattern is reversed when it comes to the environment, where Republican backers are more willing to compromise on the issue (59%) than are people who side with the Democrats.
The Issues: Iraq
While the situation in Iraq stands out as the single most important issue facing the nation, the public’s openness to compromise solutions as a way to get things done is relatively limited. Just 45% say they want to see the party that shares their views compromise with others to come to an agreement on Iraq; 51% say their party should stick to its position on this issue even if it means no progress is made.
This resistance to compromise on Iraq crosses party lines – just over half of those who agree with both the GOP and the Democrats on Iraq (51% each) say the party should stick to its positions even if it means no progress is made.
Willingness to compromise on Iraq also is unrelated to whether people rank the war as the nation’s most important problem. Just 46% of those who see Iraq as most important want the party they agree with to compromise in order to reach some agreement, as do 45% of those who do not rank Iraq as the most important problem. Narrow majorities in both groups say the party they back should stick to its position on Iraq even if it means no progress is made.
The current political context is another factor affecting the public’s willingness to work toward a middle ground. Put briefly, Democrats tend to favor compromise in principle, but not in practice, while Republicans favor compromise in practice, but not in principle. This conflict between the principle of compromise and its practice is particularly stark for Democrats, most of whom very much admire a willingness to compromise as a trait in political leaders, and favor their party working with Republicans to make progress on the most important issue of the day. Yet when it comes to working with George W. Bush there is far less enthusiasm. In fact, most Democrats (55%) say that their party should stand up to Bush on important issues even if it means less gets done this year, rather than work with the president to get things done (42%).
For Republicans, the pattern is the reverse, with the practical need to get things done outweighing a preference for conviction. As a general rule, Republicans most admire political leaders who stick to their positions (57%) rather than those who are willing to compromise (36%). But when it comes to the most important issue of the day, nearly two-thirds of Republicans (63%) want the GOP to compromise with Democrats, and 57% also support working with Democratic leaders this year to accomplish things.
Independents Don’t Stand Out
Independents, who eschew partisan labels for themselves, are also supportive of politicians compromising to find a middle ground. But their views are not starkly different from those of their partisan counterparts. Over the past 20 years, Democrats have consistently expressed more support for the idea of political compromise than have independents. And in the current survey, there is little difference between the views of Democrats and independents on this issue. About the same number say they like politicians who are willing to compromise, and who take a mix of liberal and conservative positions on the issues.
Most independents (54%) say that they admire leaders who compromise more than leaders who stick to their positions. This again shadows the view of Democrats, 58% of whom have the same preference. On all of these questions, it is the Republicans who stand apart as more supportive of political conviction over political compromise.
Instead of independents, it is the liberal Democrats who most consistently find compromise appealing. Fully 86% say they like leaders who are willing to compromise, more than any other group, and by nearly two-to-one (60% to 33%) they favor compromise over conviction as a leadership trait. Conservative Republicans stand out at the other end of the spectrum. By roughly the reverse margin (60% to 32%) conservative Republicans admire leaders who stick to their positions more than those who make compromises.
But independents are not all the same when it comes to finding a middle ground. Those who are more educated place a far higher priority on compromise and moderation than their less educated counterparts. Fully 77% of independents with a college degree say they like leaders who take a mix of liberal and conservative positions, compared with just 56% of those who did not attend or finish college. And 61% of college grads admire leaders who make compromises more than those who stick to their positions. The balance of opinion among those with less education also favors compromisers, but by a narrower 49% to 41% margin.
The Other Side Should Compromise
At root, the problem with questions of political compromise is that peoples’ answers will always be relative – compromise is fine when it is the other side that is doing the compromising. Fully 78% of Democrats believe that Republican leaders in Congress should work with Democratic leaders to accomplish things this year, but just 42% of Democrats say that their own leaders should be trying to work with President Bush. Similarly, 77% of Republicans think Democratic leaders should be making an effort to work with the president, but fewer (57%) think GOP leaders should reach across the aisle in order to get things done.
Democrats’ support for “standing up to” President Bush reflects their longstanding frustration with the president, as much as any general unwillingness to reach across the aisles. When asked whether Democratic leaders should be willing to compromise with Republicans in general on the most important issue of the day, most Democrats say yes by a 58% to 36% margin. But when it comes to working with Bush, just 42% favor cooperation, while 55% say the party should stand up to him on important issues, even if it means less gets done this year. This is particularly the case among liberal Democrats, who favor standing up to Bush by a 62% to 34% margin.
Independents have different expectations for the two party’s leaders as well. Seven-in-ten independents say that the Republican leaders should try to work with Democratic leaders to get things done in Congress. A much slimmer majority of 54% place the same demands on Democratic leaders in terms of working with President Bush.
Few See Bipartisanship
While there are some signs that Americans want more compromise and bipartisanship in Washington, they are not very optimistic that the two parties will work together. The public is evenly divided as to whether Democratic leaders in Congress are reaching out to Republicans to work out policy solutions – 39% say the Democrats are reaching out, 41% say they are not.
Even fewer people (33%) believe that the Bush administration is reaching out to Democratic congressional leaders. A majority (53%) says the administration is not making an effort to work with Democrats, while 14% do not have an opinion.
Views about which side is really trying to be bipartisan are strongly linked to partisan affiliation, as comparable majorities of both Republicans (57%) and Democrats (56%) believe their side is reaching out to the other. Independents are generally skeptical of the efforts of both the Bush administration and congressional Democrats to work with the opposition. By 48% to 33%, independents say Democratic leaders are not reaching out to Republicans; and by an even wider margin (57%-29%), independents say Bush is not making an effort to reach out to top Democrats.
And there is little hope that relations between the parties will improve – only 28% believe relations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington will get better in the coming year, while 49% say they will stay about the same and 19% think they will grow worse. This pessimistic assessment is basically unchanged from November when, just after a divisive midterm campaign, 29% said relations would get better, 46% said they would remain the same, and 20% thought they would get worse.
Views of prospects for bipartisanship differ along partisan and ideological lines. Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, are more likely to think relations between the two parties will improve over the next year, while few Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans, see relations getting better. It is worth noting, however, that among all five partisan/ideological groups, less than a third actually think relations will grow worse. Instead, either a plurality or majority in each group feels things will stay about the same.
Most See Country as More Divided
Americans also believe political divisions in the country have grown deeper in recent years. Two-thirds (66%) feel the country is more politically divided these days than in the past. The perception that America has become more polarized is shared across partisan and ideological groups, although Democrats (72%) are especially likely to say the country is more divided now. The public’s views on this have changed very little since Pew first asked the question in December 2004.
Americans are somewhat less likely to see growing political divisions among the people they know; still, 51% say their acquaintances are more divided over politics now than in the past. Here again, there has been little change on this question since December 2004. Democrats (58%) are slightly more likely than Republicans (50%) or independents (48%) to say people they know are more divided now. And there is a notable education gap on this question – college graduates (43%) are less likely than those with some college (55%) or those with a high school education or less (54%) to believe the people they associate with are more polarized today over political issues.
Differences Between Parties
Overwhelmingly, Americans think there are important differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. More than one-in-three (35%) say there is a great deal of difference between the two major parties, while another 40% see a fair amount of difference. Only 20% believe there is hardly any difference between the parties. Opinion on this question has remained relatively stable since the late 1990s.
Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are especially likely to see important distinctions between the parties – among both groups, nearly half (49% of conservative Republicans, 46% of liberal Democrats) say there is a great deal of difference. Relatively few in any group consider the parties similar to one another, although over one-quarter (28%) of independents say there are hardly any differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Views of Political Leaders’ Ideologies
A plurality of Americans (39%) say that President Bush generally takes positions that are more conservative than their own; somewhat fewer (31%) see Bush’s positions as similar to their own. By contrast, about-four-in-ten (39%) say Democratic leaders in Congress generally take positions that are similar to their own, while 35% view the positions of Democratic leaders as too liberal.
As expected, large majorities of Republicans and Democrats say the positions taken by their parties’ leaders generally dovetail with their own; 68% of Republicans say Bush adopts positions that are similar to their own, while 64% of Democrats say the same about the positions of Democratic leaders in Congress. However, while 70% of Republicans say the stances of Democratic leaders are more liberal than their own, just 54% of Democrats view Bush’s positions as more conservative; indeed, a relatively large minority of Democrats (23%) say Bush’s positions are more liberal than their own.
Independents tend to see more common ground with the positions of Democratic leaders than with Bush’s positions. However, roughly four-in-ten (38%) view the Democrats’ positions as more liberal than their own, which is only somewhat fewer than the number who say Bush’s positions are more conservative than their own.
Competitive House Districts
Views about conflict and compromise in politics are very similar across the country, regardless of whether people live in areas that tend to lean Republican or Democratic, as well as in the political battlegrounds. There are some signs, though, that people in the most competitive congressional districts have a greater taste for compromise and moderation than those in other districts nationwide. The differences, however, are modest, and in most cases these respondents share the views of the rest of the nation.
To analyze these differences, the survey included an oversample of nearly 400 residents in the 30 House districts where Democrats made gains in the 2006 midterm election. These districts, as a group, capture the areas of the country where neither political party has a clear advantage, and which were saturated with campaign activity over the past year.
While majorities nationwide say they like moderation in their leaders, this view is somewhat stronger among people who live in congressional districts where the seat changed hands from a Republican to a Democrat in November. Two-thirds (66%) say they like political leaders who take a mix of liberal and conservative views, compared with 59% in consistently Democratic districts and 58% in consistently Republican districts. And 54% say they would prefer a moderate presidential candidate in 2008, compared with 50% and 46% in these other parts of the country.
Compromise is also the watchword in these districts – fully 76% say that Republican leaders should try to work with Democrats to get things done. This is the majority view nationwide, but by a somewhat slimmer margin (69%). As is the case nationwide, there is less demand for Democrats to try to work with President Bush (57%), but residents of these districts are somewhat more eager to see Democratic leaders compromise than people in other Democratic districts. In districts that stayed Democratic, 43% want the Democratic leaders to stand up to Bush, even if it means less gets done this year. In the districts that switched to Democratic control, 37% are of this view.
While supportive of moderation and compromise, the outlook of residents in districts that changed hands is not positive. Fully 72% say that the country is more politically divided these days than in the past – this compares with 66% in other parts of the country. And there is not much sentiment that things will change – a 55% majority sees relations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington staying about the same in the coming year, compared with 49% nationwide. It is worth noting, however, that there is little optimism about greater bipartisanship in any part of the country.
Residents in these districts take a particularly negative view of George W. Bush – and feel they have more in common with the new Democratic leadership. When it comes to ideology, fully 48% in these districts say that the Democratic leaders take a similar ideological position to their own. This is slightly higher even than in districts that already had Democratic representatives before November (43%) and much higher than in districts with Republican representatives (35%). By comparison, just 28% in the districts that changed hands believe George W. Bush is ideologically similar to them.
Despite this sense of commonality with Democratic leaders, residents of districts that changed hands are not particularly optimistic that the situation in Washington will improve. Just 37% think the Democratic leaders have made an effort to reach out to Republicans to work out solutions to policy problems. In this regard, they have more in common with residents of Republican held districts (33%) than residents of districts that were already Democratic in 2006 (46%).
But George W. Bush receives even worse ratings – only 26% think Bush is making an effort to reach out to Democrats. Here, they share the skepticism of those who live in consistently Democratic districts (29%). And residents of the districts that changed hands are the most likely to see Bush’s presidency as a failure overall. Just shy of two-thirds (65%) say Bush’s failures will outweigh his accomplishments – more than in both consistently Democratic (59%) and Republican (47%) districts.