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Californians divided on pending debt reduction talks

by Michelle Salzman
California-flag

As President Barack Obama and congressional leaders prepare to begin negotiations on a debt reduction agreement to avert an impeding fiscal cliff, California voters’ intransigence on budget issues underscores the challenge that both parties face in their efforts to find a common ground.

The latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll finds that while more than 60 percent of Californians said they want their party to compromise in order to reach a debt reduction agreement, Democrats and Republicans alike refuse to give any ground on their party’s budget priorities.

When registered Democrats and decline-to-state voters were read a pair of statements about their preference on whether compromises should be made that reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits, 61 percent of those voters opposed benefit cuts in order to reduce the deficit. By contrast, the alternative that Democrats in Washington, D.C., should accept some reductions to those benefits in order to get Republicans to agree to revenue increases received 35 percent support.

When registered Republicans and decline-to-state voters were read a pair of statements about their preference on whether compromises should be made that would increase taxes, 55 percent of those voters opposed raising taxes to reduce the deficit. The argument that Republicans in Washington, D.C., should accept some revenue increases in order to get Democrats to agree to Social Security and Medicare benefits received 38 percent support.

“By a 2-to-1 margin, Californians say they want compromise,” said Dan Schnur, director of the poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “But when each party is asked specifically about that compromise — Democrats on entitlements or Republicans on taxes — they overwhelmingly say ‘no.’

“Heading into debate over the fiscal cliff, everyone in the country supports compromise as long as it’s the other side that’s doing the compromising,” Schnur said. “The challenge for both [Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives] John Boehner and Barack Obama is not simply persuading the base of their respective parties in Congress but bringing along the base of their respective parties in the country.”

Sixty-one percent of Californians preferred the statement about the federal budget, saying, “I want my elected representatives in Congress to compromise with the opposite party even if it means giving up some long-held positions.”

In comparison, 32 percent of Californians preferred the statement, “I want my elected representatives in Congress to stick to their principles even if that means important pieces of legislation get held up in the process.”

Californians are also more apt to support raising taxes on the wealthy than cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits. When presented with a list of potential options for reducing the federal budget, California voters opposed raising taxes 54-43 percent but favored increasing taxes for earners making more than $250,000 a year by 67-31 percent.

Californians were split when it came to cutting defense and military dollars by $600 billion: Forty-nine percent were in favor and 47 percent opposed. They were much more dramatically opposed (70-25 percent) to cutting funds by $600 billion for education and health care and even more so (82-16 percent) for reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits.

When queried on their preference for handling the tax cuts passed in 2001 by President George Bush and extended in 2010 by President Obama that are set to expire this year, a majority of Californians (51 percent) said they would prefer to leave them in place for those making less than $250,000 but not for those making above that amount.

Twenty-eight percent of voters said they should remain in place at all income levels, and 17 percent said they should be allowed to expire across the board.

Presidential election: voters decided early

Californians said that they had selected their candidate of choice for the presidency relatively early in the race: Forty-eight percent of voters reported making a final decision on who they would vote for before 2012.

Fifteen percent said they made their decision during or after the presidential debates, and 12 percent said they decided during the Republican primaries. Only 6 percent of California voters ever seriously considered supporting the opposing candidate at any point in the campaign.

“Californians decided on their presidential choices very early in the campaign, and they stuck with their candidate all the way through,” Schnur said. “There weren’t a lot of swing voters here on either side.”

By large margins, Californians who voted to re-elect the president said their vote for Obama was “more for Barack Obama” (82 percent) than “against Mitt Romney” (15 percent). Those who cast their ballots for Romney were more evenly split: Fifty percent said their vote was “more for Mitt Romney” while 46 percent said their vote was “more against Barack Obama.”

When California voters who voted for Obama were presented with a list of reasons why they may have selected Obama as their candidate and asked to select their top two reasons, 39 percent said that it was because he pulled the nation back from economic collapse and worked to create jobs.

Thirty-nine percent of voters also pointed to his commitment to expanding access to health care and protecting Medicare and Social Security, as well as ending tax breaks for the wealthy and instead cutting taxes for the middle class (31 percent) and supporting a woman’s right to choose and access to contraception and vital health services (30 percent).

When California voters who voted for Romney were presented with a list of reasons why they may have selected Romney as their candidate and asked to select their top two reasons, 54 percent said that Romney would grow the economy and reduce the national deficit by cutting spending, lowering taxes and creating jobs.

Forty percent selected the statement that as president, Romney would repeal Obamacare to lower costs and give people more health insurance choices, while 24 percent said he would project American strength abroad, maintain a strong U.S. military and not make apologies to other countries.

When Californians who voted for Obama were presented with a list of reasons why they selected him as their candidate, they were relatively evenly divided between the statements “He is on my side and understands people like me” (24 percent), “He will get the economy going and create jobs” (21 percent), “He is willing to compromise to get things done” (20 percent) and “He is a strong leader” (17 percent).

When Californians who voted for Romney were presented with a list of reasons why they selected him as their candidate, they overwhelmingly said that the description “He will get the economy going and create jobs” (53 percent) was most important to them. Trailing that was “He is willing to compromise to get things done” (13 percent), “He is a strong leader” (13 percent) and “He is on my side and understands people like me” (3 percent).

Latino voters and women reported overwhelmingly supporting Obama: Seventy-five percent of Latino voters and 64 percent of women said they voted for Obama compared to 22 percent of Latino voters and 34 percent of women who voted for Romney. Forty-nine percent of white voters reported voting for Romney, and 47 percent said they voted for Obama. Fifty-eight percent of respondents reported that they voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election compared to 33 percent who reported that they voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted from Nov. 7-12 by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. The full sample of 1,520 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Follow all election news coverage at Election 2012, a resource for journalists and others interested in politics created by USC Media Relations.

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