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Omero: Making Sense of the Mountain of Fiscal Cliff Polling

Fiscal cliff polling is as fast-paced as the budget negotiations themselves. But Congress should take note that even on such a complicated topic, public opinion reveals remarkable consistencies. Poll after poll shows clear support for cooperation broadly and higher tax rates for high earners specifically.

And while all Americans will suffer if we go over the fiscal cliff, Republican lawmakers seem likely to bear the brunt of political blame.

Voters say the key to an agreement is cooperation. In a mid-November CNN/ORC survey, almost three-fourths of respondents said President Barack Obama should compromise with Republicans in Congress, and similar numbers said Republican lawmakers should compromise with him. (More also want compromise now than during the debt ceiling debate.)

And while Democratic voters seem more interested in cross-party collaboration than Republican voters, 43 percent of GOP voters in the CNN poll and 46 percent of Republicans in a postelection Pew Research Center poll say their party leaders should work with the president.

And one proposal most unifies voters: Taxing the highest earners at a higher rate. Nearly every public poll I’ve seen, not just recently, but frankly, ever, shows clear support for this method of deficit reduction.

In October, Pew tested a series of spending cuts and revenue increases, and raising rates on income of more than $250,000 was the most popular. (Only “limiting deductions for large corporations” also received majority support.) Exit polls from November’s elections showed about half want to see high earners pay more; one in 10 want everyone taxed more. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, six in 10 said they want higher tax rates on incomes above $250,000. And in an early December Quinnipiac poll, increasing tax rates on the highest earners is again the most popular from a series of proposals, with almost two-thirds support.

This is not simply a question of partisanship or “class warfare.” In the Quinnipiac poll, a majority of those in households earning at least $250,000 favor higher rates for their own tax bracket. And Democrats and independents support this proposal (84 percent and 66 percent, respectively) more strongly than Republicans oppose (41 percent support; 53 percent oppose).

If Republican lawmakers dig in their heels on the single most popular deficit reduction proposal, they do so at their peril. Voters consistently say Republican lawmakers would be more at fault than Obama should negotiations fail.

In a mid-November Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll, 53 percent would blame Republicans and 29 percent would blame Obama. When they polled again a few weeks later, the numbers were essentially unchanged. Quinnipiac shows even a third of Republicans predict Republicans in Congress will not make a good-faith effort to cooperate with the president. By contrast, a fifth of Republicans say Obama will make such an effort. CNN’s latest poll shows Republicans evenly divided on whether Republicans in Congress are doing enough to work with the president.

The consistency of these numbers suggests they are harder to change. But there is an opening for both parties to make the case to voters why these talks matter. In a Washington Post/Pew poll, almost two-thirds (64 percent) said a lack of an agreement will have a “major effect” on the national economy, but only 43 percent said it would have a similar effect on their own finances.

Yet voters are paying attention. Pew found 40 percent are paying very close attention to this debate, on par with past budget and tax battles (although a little less than the 2011 debt ceiling debate). More say they are following this issue “very closely” than nearly any other budget or tax issue Pew has tracked since 1992. And while only about a quarter say they understand the issue “very well,” this is actually higher than with other issues Pew has tested.

But perhaps most troubling of all these patterns: Voters are more pessimistic now than during the debt ceiling crisis. Half now predict there will be no deal, while more than half were optimistic in July 2011, according to Pew tracking. Even worse, CNN found two-thirds of voters say elected officials will act more like “spoiled children” than “responsible adults.”

There is a chance for lawmakers to exceed voters’ expectations. Let’s hope they take it. Collaboration and a tax increase for high earners are the most popular ways forward.

Margie Omero is founder and president of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm. Many years ago, she was a Roll Call intern.

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