Assuming that we Americans still see ourselves as one nation and indivisible, it is hard to believe that there is a connection between our politics and what voters have actually expressed in recent years. Polling and voter behavior over the past decade and a half shows an electorate that favors change and problem solving. But in the actions of elected officials, we find too little of either.
In the popular votes for the House and Senate since 1998, voters have cast ballots in favor of Democrats 48.7 percent of the time and for Republicans 47.5 percent of the time, on average. Democrats have won more popular votes in these past eight elections, but have not averaged a majority. The GOP has only won a majority once, in the 2010 House, out of 16 contests for both houses. In my view, the voters have favored a sort of equilibrium that begs both sides to find common ground.
That is what voters told the Zogby Poll shortly after the November presidential elections.
By a factor of 48 percent to 30 percent, voters wanted the GOP to reach out across the aisle and work with President Obama to enact his policy agenda. That number included 76 percent of polled Democrats and 47 percent of independents. Though only 15 percent of Republicans agreed, a telling 24 percent said they were not sure.
When asked what would most help the U.S. economy in the long term, roughly one in five voters said increasing tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, which Democrats want.
Another third said a decrease in government spending, which Republicans want. But 43 percent said a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
Rather than respond to voter expectations, however, politicians have helped to establish a climate of “hyperpartisanship” by avoiding compromise.
In 2001, shortly after the first inauguration of President George W. Bush, I had the unique opportunity to address both the Republican and Democratic Senate retreats. This was unique because I am an independent pollster, and both parties tend to invite their own preachers to their choirs. I told both audiences that neither side won the election of 2000. The popular vote for President was 48 percent to 48 percent. The vote for the U.S. House was 47 percent to 47 percent, and the vote for the Senate was 47 percent to 47 percent. Given the electoral split, I laid out a common agenda that I figured was bipartisan and acceptable based on policies that majorities of likely voters said they supported in polls, such as missile defense, campaign finance reform and health care reform. My message was not welcomed on either side.
Five years later, after the landslide Democratic victory in both houses in 2006, I got equally clear answers after asking more than 1,000 likely voters what characteristics were most important in the next President of the United States. They said they wanted someone competent enough to manage the federal government, but most importantly, that they wanted a problem solver and a consensus builder. Those traits trumped a President who agreed with them most of the time, someone who put the party over the national interest or even a good family man or woman. None of the top traits was in any way ideological. As the campaign moved forward through 2007 and into 2008, the most desired traits stayed constant. Notably, both parties nominated the candidates who had the best claims to being problem solvers and consensus builders: John McCain and Barack Obama.
Last November, President Obama was re-elected by a majority of voters. A December 2012 Zogby Poll showed that by a factor of 54 percent to 26 percent, voters preferred that Congressional Republicans “put partisan politics aside to support the agenda of President Obama and the Democrats.” But they also said by a ratio of 65 percent to 25 percent that any deal that included an increase in tax rates should be offset by “across-the-board budget cuts equal to or greater than the increase in revenues.”
As of this writing, there are some encouraging signs that our leaders may finally be tuning in to the electorate’s push for a solution-driven, pragmatic government. President Obama recently dined with a group of influential Republicans, and the GOP Senators who attended have welcomed the personal attention. But soon after that, House Budget Committee Chair and 2012 Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan released a budget that rejects any new taxes and calls for the repeal of Obamacare. Not a good start. This will be followed in short order by the Senate Democrats’ first budget proposal in four years, which is expected to ignore any of the cuts in entitlements that Republicans want and call for new revenues.
The polling is clear. Voters will accept cuts in services and entitlements, and they will not oppose new taxes – so long as these are fair across the board and a plausible case is made for change. What is also clear is that American voters are accustomed to making sacrifices. But neither party’s approach is enough to solve the country’s problems, and dramatic actions call for a unified approach. Instead of compromise, Americans have been treated to party leadership that only serves the calls from the loudest voices in their respective base.
My message to policymakers in January 2001 is as true today as it was back then: You have a mandate to legislate by finding common ground, not by retreating to the safety of your bunker.
John Zogby is the founder of the Zogby Poll, a senior analyst with Zogby Analytics, and author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House). He is co-author with Joan Snyder Kuhl of the e-book The First Globals: Understanding, Managing, and Unleashing Our Millennial Generation (Spring 2013).