Most Democratic and Republican voters agree on a wide range of proposals to boost the economy, from upgrading infrastructure to reducing college costs, casting doubt on the conventional belief that pocketbook issues are hopelessly dividing voters in the 2020 election.
A Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos survey reveals that Americans agree far more than they disagree on ways to make it easier for low- and middle-income people to get good jobs and for corporations to provide them. The poll of Democrats, Republicans and independents is part of the three organizations’ “Hidden Common Ground 2020 Initiative,” which seeks to explore areas of agreement on major issues.
Most Americas, regardless of party affiliation, support proposals to upgrade infrastructure; provide tax breaks to job-creating businesses; decrease college costs; and retrain adults for better-paying positions. The survey of about 1,000 adults was conducted on February 20-21.
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“There is near unanimity in support for multiple policies promoting job creation, ranging from training and education programs to investing in infrastructure and research,” says Ipsos Vice President Chris Jackson.
Voters express partisan differences on issues like raising the minimum wage, promoting labor unions and easing regulations on businesses. But even those gaps aren’t as stark as political rhetoric would suggest.
Democrats and Republicans also disagree over whether government should bear the burden of job creation. Sixty percent of Democrats say the government is responsible for making sure there are enough good jobs, compared with 35% of Republicans.
And not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans have contrasting outlooks on the economy under President Trump. Seventy-one percent of Republicans say the economy is excellent or good – notwithstanding the recent concerns and market panic sparked by the coronavirus — compared with 30% of Democrats and 43% of independents.
And 62% of Republicans describe their family’s financial situation positively, vs. 52% of Democrats.
Roads, bridges and tax breaks
But most survey respondents agree that state and federal governments can take steps to improve the economy and create good jobs by:
► Upgrading public infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, to create good jobs and make the economy more productive: 83% of Republicans, 85% of Democrats and 74% of independents.
► Decreasing the cost of colleges and universities so more Americans can get an education and a good job: 72% of Republicans, 85% of Democrats and 74% of independents.
► Creating incentives that encourage businesses to bring good jobs they moved overseas back to the U.S.: 86% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats and 83% of independents.
► Providing tax breaks to businesses that create good quality jobs in communities that need them: 81% of Republicans, 69% of Democrats and 56% of independents.
Some of these ideas long have drawn bipartisan support, such as repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. But the idea is bogged down in political battles over how to pay for it.
The fault lines between voters are more pronounced in other areas. Eighty-percent of Democrats support raising the minimum wage so every full-time job provides enough income to keep people above the poverty line. The federal pay floor has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.
Only 48% of Republicans and 54% of independents back a minimum wage increase, compared with 80% of Democrats. Yet it may be surprising that roughly half of Republicans and independents favor the proposal, suggesting there could be space for negotiation on how much to increase base pay. For years, the Republican-majority Senate has refused to consider any minimum wage hike, including a bill passed by the Democratic-dominated House last year to more than double the threshold to $15 an hour.
If half of Republican voters back the idea, “There’s got to be room for some kind of compromise,” says David Schleifer, director of research for Public Agenda, the nonpartisan, nonprofit research and public engagement organization that spearheaded the survey.
Similarly, 46% of Republicans and 52% of independents support making it easier for workers to join unions to negotiate for better wages and working conditions, compared with 76% of Democrats. Those results underscore that while unions may not garner bipartisan support, policymakers could take other steps to help workers to bargain with employers, says Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel of the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
Voters want to make it happen
“I don’t think the problem is with the public,” Schleifer says of longstanding stalemates in Washington. “It’s really elected officials not being willing or able to move things forward,” perhaps because they’ve been swayed by lobbyists or industry campaign contributions.
Charles Hyland, 32, of Frederick, Maryland, is an independent who usually votes Democratic and says he’s “fairly liberal.” He describes the national economy and his financial situation as “fair.” After graduating from college in 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession, he struggled to launch his photography business and moonlighted as a substitute teacher to make ends meet.
He ultimately shut down the firm and now works as a firefighter. His wife is a veterinary technician. “We’re making do,” he says.
Like most other survey respondents, Hyland supports proposals such as upgrading infrastructure, funding research, creating retraining programs and encouraging businesses to bring jobs back from overseas.
He also fervently backs raising the nation’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. “I earn $21, $22 an hour and I live paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “People can’t live on (the current $7.25 federal minimum) — period.”
The union member also believes in making it easier for workers to join unions. Nationally, the share of private-sector workers who belong to unions has fallen to 10.3% from 35% in 1954.
But Hyland’s views on other proposals aren’t rigid. He favors reducing college costs. “I believe it’s in the interest of the country to make it more affordable,” he says. But, he adds, “I don’t believe necessarily in free college,” adding there’s too much focus on four-year schools. “My bachelor’s degree became useless.”
Much of the government’s funding, he says, should go to community colleges and trade schools.
Hyland’s views on other proposals are less traditionally Democratic. He supports giving tax breaks to companies “if they keep the money in the local economy.”
And while he generally opposes cutting regulations on businesses, especially environmental ones, he’s not dogmatic. “Which regulations are we talking about?” he asks.
Penny Mahar, 79, of New Hartford, New York, appears to be Hyland’s political opposite in some respects. She’s a Republican who describes the national economy as “excellent” and her personal financial situation as “good.”
Four years ago, Mahar, a widow, moved from the three-bedroom house she shared with her husband to a mobile home to save money and channel the profits into an annuity. She mostly lives off Social Security payments and a small pension from the insurance company where she worked for 24 years.
Unlike Hyland, Mahar doesn’t believe it’s the government’s responsibility to create good jobs. And she doesn’t want to encourage union membership. “They’ve become too powerful and they’ve become corrupt,” she says.
But she sounds a lot like Hyland on other issues. She opposes making public colleges free for all students.
“If (students) had to pay, they would take more of an interest,” Mahar says. “I see people going along for the ride.”
She agrees, however, that the government should reduce the costs “so young people have the opportunity to go to college.”
Mahar also believes in giving tax breaks to businesses that create jobs, saying they’ll likely invest the savings in their employees.
And while she favors paring back regulations for businesses, she adds, “You can’t just say all of it’s got to go. What’s working, let it work. It’s not working, find out why it’s not working.”
Mahar supports raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. “Everything else has gone up,” she says of consumer prices. But she differs from Hyland on how much it should be lifted. “I wouldn’t go as dramatic as $15. That seems like a large increase” that could hurt businesses.
A political system that needs repair
If voters like Mahar and Hyland share common ground, why can’t lawmakers?
Jan Rivkin, a Harvard Business School professor, says the problem runs deeper than campaign contributions. “The rewards go not to those that solve problems but to those that rile up their base,” RiIkin says. “Somewhere along the way, compromise became a dirty word.”
Members of Congress take extreme positions to win primaries and shy away from advancing policies that could lead to their ouster by a stauncher party loyalist in the next primary, he says. A recent Harvard report co-authored by Rivkin titled, “A Recovery Squandered,” calls for nonpartisan primaries, with the top five vote-getters moving on to the general election. Rivkin also blames hurdles to passing legislation in Congress, such as the filibuster.
Some of the voters surveyed also adhere to more party-line views. Republican Calvin Fink, 54, of Deland, Florida, describes the economy and his financial situation as “excellent,” giving much of the credit to the sweeping tax cuts spearheaded by President Trump. Fink, the chief financial officer of an accounting firm, says his raises in recent years have far outpaced the national average.
Fink supports government investment in infrastructure and research – but not for programs to combat climate change. While he believes the planet is warming, he doesn’t think it’s because of human activity. Phasing out fossil fuels, such as coal, he says,“ will put people out of work.”
He also opposes a substantial hike in the minimum wage, saying, it would lead to big price increases for consumers and shutter some small businesses. “Are you going to pay $10 for a big Mac?”
Yet unlike leading lawmakers in the Senate, Fink says he could support small, gradual increases in the federal pay floor over several years.
“It must go up incrementally.” he says.