Poll Shows Public Wants Compromise... Up to a Point

Are Political Leaders Making an Effort at Bipartisanship?

Are Political Leaders Making an Effort at Bipartisanship?
Senators gather in the Old Senate Chamber for a bipartisan caucus before the swearing in of the 110t i i

hide captionSenators gather in the Old Senate Chamber for a bipartisan caucus before the swearing in of the 110th Congress Jan. 4.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Senators gather in the Old Senate Chamber for a bipartisan caucus before the swearing in of the 110t

Senators gather in the Old Senate Chamber for a bipartisan caucus before the swearing in of the 110th Congress Jan. 4.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Overwhelmingly, Americans see the country as divided, and value political leaders who try to bridge the gap. But like politicians, the public finds compromise much tougher on the very toughest issues of the day, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In the weeks since the 2006 election returned divided government to Washington, politicians from both parties have responded to the vote with pledges to work together.

The survey, a collaboration between NPR News and the Pew Research Center, is a foundation for our series Crossing the Divide, which explores what the American public thinks about bipartisanship and leadership today, and about conflict and compromise in politics and policy.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, discusses the poll results and what they mean.

Political Compromise Prized, But Is It Attainable?

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 percent 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 percent) as well as political leaders who take conservative positions on nearly all issues (57 percent). Instead, by roughly two-to-one (60 percent to 34 percent), 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 percent 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 percent) 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 one-quarter (28 percent) believe 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 percent 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 percent).

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 one-third (32 percent) say they most want to vote for a moderate Democrat, and nearly half (48 percent) 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 percent to 28 percent), while Republicans are evenly split between backing a conservative or moderate Republican (40 percent each). Nearly half of independents (45 percent) say they most want to vote for a moderate — either a Democrat (28 percent) or a Republican (17 percent). Yet independents also are leaning heavily Democratic in their 2008 choices — by 44 percent to 29 percent, 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent) was unable to name any policy; 27 percent said the Iraq war or mentioned proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, while 18 percent 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.

Read the full report.

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