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More Americans Look to Congressional Democrats Than to Trump for Solutions

by Ronald Brownstein   |   December 9, 2016



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Does Donald Trump have a mandate?

Though last month’s election provided Trump and his fellow Republicans unified control of the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate for the first time since 2006, the latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll shows the country remains closely split on many of the key policy challenges facing the incoming administration—and sharply divided on whether they trust the next president to take the lead in responding to them.

In addition, on several important choices facing the new administration and Congress, the survey found that respondents who voted for Trump supported a position that was rejected by the majority of adults overall. That contrast may simultaneously encourage Trump to press forward on an agenda that energizes his coalition, while emboldening congressional Democrats to resist him.

Reflecting the incoming alignment of unified Republican control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a solid 56 percent majority expect the next president and Congress to “work together more than they did in the previous four years.”

“In the past, it’s been where they get in office and then it seems to be like nothing seems to get accomplished, too much red tape or something,” said Philip Denning, a mechanic in Houghton, Iowa, who voted for Trump and responded to the survey. “And I believe that maybe Donald Trump will cut through that red tape and get people to come together.”

But opinion splintered much more on who should take the lead role in driving the nation’s agenda; in fact, the results suggested that many Americans might prefer a kind of multipolar Washington, with three distinct orbits of power checking each other.

The newly elected president, strikingly, did not top the list when adults were asked who they “trust more to develop solutions for the major challenges facing the country.” A 35 percent plurality of those polled picked Democrats in Congress; Trump finished second at 26 percent. But when combined with the additional 20 percent who pointed to congressional Republicans, more adults looked toward the GOP than to Democrats. (The remaining 15 percent said they trusted “none of the above.”) Even among Trump voters, a relatively modest 53 percent said they most trusted him to develop solutions; about one-third picked congressional Republicans.

Sheila Boeggeman, a homemaker and Trump supporter from Medford, Oregon, is one respondent who expects the new president to set the pace for Washington. “I think that Donald Trump is not one to sit by and be passive, so I think he’ll probably take the lead, especially just trying to set the tone, and from there hopefully everybody will work together,” she said.

But Arleen Yeager, a former public-school art teacher who now makes prints and paints in Nashville, Tennessee—and who supported Clinton—remains dubious of looking to Trump for answers. “I want to go crawl under a rock for the next four years,” she said. “Truly, the man has nothing to offer this country. Nothing. And I know these people all want a change and they thought he could bring change, [but] he has no political experience. He has nothing to offer. Nothing. And most of all, it just makes me so terribly sad. … I’m not anti-Republicans … but this man is awful. Just awful. He’s awful for everybody.”

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll is the 27th in a series examining how Americans are adapting to the changing economy. The new poll focuses on reactions to the 2016 election, as well as the public’s priorities and expectations for the new administration and Congress.

Democrats performed better on questions that tested policy preferences but didn’t attach the ideas specifically to either party.

Splintered loyalties were also evident on a subsequent question that asked adults whether they most trusted Trump, congressional Republicans, or congressional Democrats to handle 15 specific issues. As the chart below shows, on no issue did a majority of adults point to Trump. He scored best on one of his signature themes—creating jobs—with 42 percent saying they most trusted him to stop “American companies from moving jobs to foreign countries” and 40 percent preferring him for “negotiating trade deals that benefit America.” In both cases, that far outpaced the share of adults who looked first to congressional Democrats—or, for that matter, congressional Republicans.

Who Should Lead

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But Trump drew more support than congressional Democrats did on only three other issues: “protecting Americans from threats of terrorism on our soil” (35 percent Trump, 25 percent congressional Democrats); “reducing the national debt” (33 percent Trump, 27 percent Democrats); and “creating more good-paying jobs in the U.S”—though even there adults split almost exactly evenly between 35 percent for Trump and 34 percent for congressional Democrats.

On every other issue tested—from “creating a long-term solution to the issue of undocumented immigrants” and “reforming the tax system,” to “expanding clean and renewable energy sources” and “increasing affordability for college education,” more adults said they trusted congressional Democrats over Trump to develop responses.

When asked what issues Congress and the president-elect should make priorities in 2017, adults responded with a list that blended favorites of the two parties.

But when those who said they most trust congressional Republicans were added to the mix, the combined total looking to the GOP exceeded the Democratic share for 10 of the 15 issues tested. (The combined Republican total reached a majority on six of the issues, and a plurality greater than the Democrats’ share on four others.) More adults looked to congressional Democrats than to Trump and their Republican counterparts combined on five issues: increasing equality, reducing gun violence, improving primary and secondary education, expanding renewable energy sources, and enhancing college affordability.

Democrats performed better on questions that tested policy preferences but didn’t attach the ideas specifically to either party. In their underlying views on almost a dozen issues tested, those surveyed leaned more often toward positions usually associated with Democrats than with Republicans; that finding may capture how much personal resistance Hillary Clinton faced in the 2016 race even among some voters who agreed more with her policy views than with Trump’s.

Across these issues, the tilt toward GOP preferences was greatest on two hot-button social issues that reflect anxiety about both social disorder and changing demographics. A 51 percent majority said Washington should place greater priority on “increasing border security and first deporting illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes,” while 43 percent said the top priority should be “passing comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.” Similarly, the 52 percent that said the new administration and Congress should focus on “emphasizing measures aimed at supporting the police and keeping our streets safe” comfortably exceeded the 44 percent who prioritized “criminal-justice reform aimed at reducing mass incarceration for non-violent crimes.”

In each case, the conservative position drew support from at least three-fifths of whites without a college education, Trump’s core supporters throughout the campaign. (Nearly four-fifths of white men without a college degree prioritized stiffer enforcement over reform with a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.) On each issue, most non-whites rejected the Republican position, though not by overwhelming margins. College-educated whites split, breaking narrowly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and narrowly against policies focused on reducing incarceration. Across both questions, Trump and Clinton voters expressed starkly divergent views.

Paul Reedy, a white, self-employed construction contractor in North Chesterfield, Virginia, encapsulated the fervor of many Trump supporters for a harder line on immigration. “I personally have lost jobs to illegal-immigrant crews because they come in for cheaper labor and cheaper wages and under-bid me,” he said. “I know one contractor [who]… hired these guys and paid them under the table, and they would do all the drywall work. And so that knocked out a lot of the American crews, the drywall guys, and eventually they started even taking over the painting business. We just couldn’t even compete with the lower prices they were paying them.”

Tony Cassio, a Hispanic high-school teacher and Clinton supporter in McAllen, Texas, is as passionate on the other side. The immigration hard-liners, he says, are unfairly maligning “people coming over to survive,” and portraying them as dangerous when they are not. “I remember during the election, Trump made a big deal [saying] ‘I’m going to Laredo, Texas,’” Cassio said. “I mean, I go to Laredo once … twice a year. It’s not like I’m going to a third-world war zone. I live on the border. I live in a town very similar to Laredo. They make it sound like I’m dodging bullets and stuff every day. It’s safe. I love living down here.”

On several other issues, most adults endorsed positions usually identified with Democrats. By 60 percent to 36 percent, adults said they preferred “revising and improving” the Affordable Care Act to “repealing and replacing” it. While 57 percent of adults wanted to prioritize “greater production of renewable fuels like wind and solar to address climate change,” just 37 percent said Washington should stress “increasing production of fossil fuels, like natural gas and oil, to increase American energy independence.”

“I think that’s a high priority [to develop renewables] because … you want to be … innovating in your country,” said Steve Thuo, a Clinton supporter and warehouse worker in Lynn, Massachusetts. “I think if America invests in that, it’s going to be more innovative and it’s always changing, it’s always getting better.”

Asked to identify the best strategy to address the nation’s economic challenges, more adults (52 percent) picked an approach built around “investments in education, training, infrastructure, and research” than the usual GOP preferences of “tax cuts for businesses and individuals” (27 percent) or “reducing the federal deficit” (12 percent). And fully 56 percent said that “the federal government needs to toughen regulation on businesses to ensure consumers are treated fairly, products are manufactured safely, and the environment is protected.” Only 39 percent said “the federal government should reduce regulations on businesses as overregulation has made it too difficult for businesses to operate and hurts job growth.”

Even more emphatically, 67 percent said “the federal government should increase funding for education to ensure all children have access to an affordable, quality education from pre-school to college”; just 29 percent endorsed the competing statement that “the federal government already spends enough on funding for education; new spending would add to existing bureaucracy and undermine state and local control.”

Reedy, the Trump supporter, puts himself firmly in the latter camp. He strongly opposed Clinton’s proposal to expand federal funding for access to pre-school. “I think the most formative years [for] a child—especially when they’re really young, toddler and coming up to four or five, six—I think those years should be more spent with the parents,” he said. “And to me it seems like public-school systems are trying to get our kids younger and younger, and it seems like … the way the schools are now, they’re not teaching things that we learned in school when we were kids. It’s more or less become an indoctrination program, in my opinion.”

Much more common was the perspective of Lynn, a retired technician in the medical field and Clinton supporter in Portland, Maine, who asked not to give her last name. “It shouldn’t be so heavily influenced that where you live should determine what kind of education you get,” she said. “Not everybody has the joy of being able to have parents that read to them and send them to day care that have preschools built into them and stuff like that. But I would like to see everybody have that beginning, because it’s been shown that when you have that strong beginning, you actually do better all the way through school.”

Finally, a resounding 80 percent said Washington should prioritize “protecting Medicare and Social Security from any reductions to ensure those who paid a contribution receive their promised benefits,” while just 16 percent wanted greater emphasis on “reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for upper-income seniors to help reduce the federal deficit.” Those numbers varied little across any demographic group—though Trump voters were even more resistant than Clinton supporters to cuts in the giant entitlement programs for the elderly, the poll found.

Amanda Sinclair, a retired Postal Service employee and Trump supporter in Dahlonega, Georgia, is one of them. “Old people, they have worked hard into their life—they deserve everything that Social Security has to offer,” she said. “But I also keep in mind that our debt is fixing to be $20 trillion, and Obama’s done a horrible job … spending money on stupid stuff throughout his eight-year term. So if there’s any way they could just keep 100 percent of Social Security and Medicare [and] Medicaid in place right now—and I know sometimes we do have to make cuts—but I hope it’s something that’s not going to be a really big, big deal.”

Three other questions divided Americans almost evenly. While 48 percent said the next president and Congress should focus on “increasing taxes for wealthy families,” 47 percent said it should emphasize “cutting federal taxes for everyone.” Adults split exactly evenly—47 percent on each side—over whether in dealing with such questions as immigration, trade, and military involvement abroad “America should focus on strengthening relationships with foreign nations” or “should focus on being independent and prioritizing the interests and needs of our citizens first.” (In mirror image, two-thirds of Trump voters picked independence while two-thirds of Clinton voters prioritized strengthening relationships.)

And, in a broader philosophical measure, adults divided almost evenly between those who endorsed the Ronald Reagan-esque sentiment that government is more the problem than the solution; those who said government must play an active role in the economy; and those who said they would like government to play an active role but cannot trust it to do so effectively. That core question has divided Americans almost exactly in thirds each time the Heartland Monitor has asked it since January 2010.

On several of these questions, most of Trump’s voters backed a position that a majority of the overall public rejected. While most adults wanted to improve the Affordable Care Act, for instance, 70 percent of Trump’s voters preferred repeal. “There’s got to be something better,” said Sinclair, the retired Postal Service worker. “And some of these people that are choosing just to pay the penalty—I mean, what else are they going to do? You can’t pay these high premiums. You just can’t.”

Likewise, while most adults want to stress renewable energy sources, over three-fifths of Trump voters favored expanded fossil-fuel production. While most adults want to stiffen oversight of business, 71 percent of Trump voters say it should be loosened. And in one of the sharpest divergences, most Trump voters also said the federal government now spends too much on education.

In all, these results could foreshadow a 2017 environment in which Trump and the Republican congressional majority feel confident about advancing an agenda that unifies the coalition that elected them—while Democrats feel equally confident about resisting the same ideas because they offer little appeal to their coalition, and lack majority support overall.

The twist could be Social Security and Medicare: While congressional Republicans have consistently proposed restraining spending on Medicare, and at times on Social Security, Trump repeatedly rejected reductions in either program during the campaign.

One last finding reinforces this dynamic. When asked what issues Congress and the president-elect should make priorities in 2017, adults responded with a list that blended favorites of the two parties. At the very top was “creating jobs for American workers in all industries,” which both sides claim as a priority. After that, the list hopscotched between ideas associated with each party, including enforcing equal pay for women, passing comprehensive immigration reform, launching a major infrastructure initiative, fortifying the military, and improving college affordability.

With Republicans controlling Congress and the White House, Democrats will have few chances next year to spotlight their issues on that list. Those ideas may be more relevant as guideposts for the party’s long road back to renewed influence. For now, despite the signs of hesitation evident in this survey, it’s the Trump coalition’s priorities that will determine Washington’s to-do list in the months ahead.


Assistant editor Leah Askarinam contributed.

The latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll is the 27th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll examines the public’s to-do list for Washington in the coming year, and which political leaders Americans trust most to respond to the nation’s most pressing problems. It surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from November 16 to November 21, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Megan McNally, and William Cullo of FTI Consulting’s strategic-communications practice.

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