Americans — “conservative” but not “center-right”

The results from a poll taken for NPR by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner provide a good snapshot of public sentiment as of March 10-12, 14. The best news for Republicans is that their party is tied 42-42 on the generic “who would you vote for today in your congressional district” question. With respondents disapproving of the congressional performance by a margin of 58-36, perhaps this generic preference result should not have surprised me.

By contrast, President Obama’s approval rating was 59 percent with only 35 percent disapproving (a more current Rasmussen poll suggests that this margin is shrinking). This result corresponds reasonably well with Obama’s approval rating on the issue of paramount concern to respondents — the economy. Here the split was 56-39.

In other results:

Respondents favor “Obama’s budget plan” by a margin of 49-40.

40 percent think Obama’s stimulus plan will help the economy; 21 percent think it will hurt, and 34 think it will have little impact.

By a margin of 55-42, respondents favor the stimulus plan

Respondents favor the Democratic message on the budget, energy, and health care (as conceived by Democrats on the bi-partisan polling team) over the Republican message (as conceived by Republicans). The margins were between 6 and 11 percentage points.

None of this is very surprising. We recently elected Obama by a margin in this range, and thereafter his popularity surged, as it would for any new president who presented himself well following his election. The public isn’t likely to repudiate that president’s policies less than two months after he takes office.

The most interesting result, I thought, is that self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a margin of 45-19 (35 percent identified themselves as moderates). Obviously, there is a disconnect between this result and the answers to substantive questions about the stimulus plan, the budget, etc (though it should be noted that the pollsters stated the Democratic position in moderate sounding terms).

To me, this disconnect further undermines the solace some conservatives take from the claim that the United States is a center-right country. First, I think the poll results are inconsistent with the underlying claim. Americans may call themselves conservatives, but their stated policy preferences (not to mention their recent voting patterns) suggest otherwise.

Second, even if we are a center-right country today, and are only looking favorably on Obama’s left-wing policies out of fairness or wishful thinking, it seems clear that if these policies are eventually seen as successful, we will stop self-identifying as conservatives and fully embrace the policies that are thought to have led to the recovery. In other words, we are an economic recovery away from seeing the center move substantially leftward. And arguably it’s been about 75 years since an economic recovery didn’t timely occur following a major economic downturn.

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