Public Opinion on the Role of Government

Commentators such as liberal E.J. Dionne and even libertarian David Harsanyi are claiming that the election results prove that Obama won a great referendum on the role of government in American society, achieving a mandate for expanded government intervention.

The CNN exit polls tell a very different story. 51 percent of voters said that government is doing “too much” that should be left to businesses and individuals, compared to 43% who believe that government should do “more” to solve problems. By far the biggest and most controversial new government program of the last four years was the Obama health care plan. The CNN poll shows that 49% would like to see it repealed in whole or in part, while 44% want to keep it as is or expand it. The latter number is particularly interesting in light of the fact that we just went through an election where the GOP nominee could not attack the individual health insurance mandate – the single most unpopular part of the law – because he enacted an individual mandate himself back when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Somewhat inconsistently, there is a 63-33 majority against the idea that taxes should be raised to help cut the deficit, but a 60-35 majority in favor of raising taxes on people earning over $250,000 per year. Either there is a huge number of people who want to raise taxes but not spend any of the money on paying down the deficit, or (more likely) the wording of the two questions has different framing effects.

I don’t fool myself into believing that the majority of the public are as libertarian as I am. Not even close. The vast bulk of the 51% who believe government is doing too much and and the 49% who would like to repeal all or part of Obamacare still favor a much bigger government than I do. But they don’t seem to endorse the liberal view of government’s role either.

It’s too early to say whether a more libertarian position is the best political strategy for the GOP (or any party) going forward. I certainly hope it’s true. The above survey data combined with the continuing popularity of property rights, and the growing social liberalism evident in increased support for drug legalization and gay marriage is some evidence for the theory. On the other hand, the fastest-growing ethnic segment of the electorate is Hispanics, and they tend to be economically statist. Whether the GOP can persuade more Hispanics to support free markets if they reach out to the group by changing the party’s position on immigration is difficult to say. Also, it’s very hard to persuade a majority of the public to support deep cuts in entitlement spending – the single largest component of the federal budget, in part because of widespread ignorance about how enormous that spending actually is. At this point, therefore, it is hard to say whether a much more libertarian stance than that which the GOP took in 2012 will yield political dividends. It’s always tempting to conclude that whatever you support is also good political strategy. But the temptation should be resisted unless and until you have some strong evidence to prove it.

What we can say, however, is that the available evidence does not show that the election was a clear mandate for bigger and more interventionist government. The majority of the public remains suspicious of government and more people want it to leave more issues to the private sector than want it to do more.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that the 49-44 breakdown on Obamacare is consistent with other recent surveys on the law, which show an average of 47 percent opposing it, and 39% in favor. A smaller sample of polls aggregated by RCP shows an average of 50-44 in favor of repealing the law. That reduces the likelihood that the CNN result was a function of flaws in the wording of their question (such as ambiguity over what it means to repeal “part” of the law, or “expand” it). This not a high enough level of opposition to force the Democrats to actually repeal it. But that’s not my point. I merely suggest that there is no majority consensus in favor of it.

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