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New Poll Says It’s Not 1994

For much of the year, both Democrats and Republicans have tried to avoid looking like big spenders, disavowing earmarks and trying to outflank one another on the issue of fiscal discipline — because that’s what they believe voters want to hear. A comprehensive new study of voter preferences, however, reveals it’s not nearly that simple:

A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

This ambivalence carries over, notes The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, even into the fraught terrain of earmark spending:

Fifty-seven percent of those polled said they wanted their own Congressman to “fight for more government spending in your congressional district, in order to create jobs” while 39 percent said they preferred their member of Congress to “fight” government spending even if it means fewer jobs in their district. A majority of independents (52 percent) said they preferred their congressman to focus on local spending to create jobs.

Those numbers stand in contrast to the state of the electorate in the fall of 1994 — less than two months before Republicans retook control of Congress with a message built on the public’s distaste for government.

In a September 1994 Post/Kaiser poll 42 percent said they wanted their member of Congress to fight for more government spending in their own district while 53 percent said they wanted their member to fight government spending.

In other words, it’s not 1994 all over again. Americans want the government to walk a very fine line — they want spending cuts but don’t want to cut any specific spending programs. It’ll be interesting to observe, in the final three weeks, how candidates contort themselves in order to meet voters’ wishes.

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