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USC DORNSIFE / TIMES POLL

California backs a 'fiscal cliff' compromise — sort of, poll says

Democratic and Republican voters aren't willing to give ground on taxes and budget cuts, a poll shows. In general, Californians support Obama's approach.

November 15, 2012|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times
  • House Speaker John A. Boehner, second from left, has said he is willing to compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff facing Congress and President Obama. Californians have their own ideas about how to compromise, a new poll shows.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, second from left, has said he is willing to… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

As America careens toward the year-end "fiscal cliff" with Democrats pressing for tax hikes and Republicans demanding budget cuts, California voters have one firm word for their elected officials:

Compromise.

By that they mean: Make the other side compromise.

In a survey that confirms the difficulty of coming up with popular ways to do unpopular things, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 3 in 5 Californians want their elected officials to "compromise with the opposite party, even if that means giving up some long-held positions."

But things foundered on the details.

When Democrats were asked whether cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits should be offered to get Republican agreement on some tax hikes, or whether all reductions were off the table, they strongly opposed any benefit cuts.

When Republicans were asked whether some revenue hikes should be accepted to get Democrats to agree to benefit cuts, they just as firmly opposed any tax increases.

The independent voters in the middle sided with Democrats in saying that benefits should not be sacrificed for tax hikes. Only narrowly did they say that Republicans should agree to raise taxes as part of a budget deal that would also slice benefits.

In short, the state that is often cast as far out on the fringe of the nation's political thought demonstrated that it has at least this in common with everywhere else: defining compromise as a one-way street.

"People are in favor of compromise as long as other people are doing the compromising," said David Kanevsky of the Republican firm American Viewpoint, half of a bipartisan duo that conducted the poll for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The poll also confirmed the outcome of last week's election, in which President Obama won a second romping victory in California. There was broad support for the president and his campaign proposal to raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year.

Given a choice of three options loudly debated in the campaign, 51% of Californians said the George W. Bush administration tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year should be left in place for those making less than that amount. Only 28% took the position espoused by Republican leaders that all of the tax cuts should remain in place. A smaller group still, 17%, said everyone's taxes should be raised to help cut the nation's deficit.

"This is a difficult problem to solve, but the president's agenda came out of this in a strong position in California," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic poll partner of American Viewpoint.

When budget options for the fight now brewing in Washington were proposed separately, California was generally in line with voters elsewhere in the nation. Voters took a measured approach to taxes, weren't keen on cutting the defense budget and objected strenuously to cuts in social programs, Medicare and Social Security. Essentially, they endorsed the stalemate that has blocked both parties from attacking the federal deficit.

Asked whether taxes should be raised wholesale, Californians objected, 54% to 43%. Anti-tax feelings were shared by unusual bedfellows: 79% of Republicans, 65% of Latinos, 60% of those making less than $50,000 a year.

Sentiment flipped when it came to raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year, an option supported by 67% of respondents; 31% opposed it. Most major demographic and ideological groups, except for Republicans, strongly backed such a move. Even those most directly affected — those making more than $100,000 — favored a tax hike by a 24-percentage-point margin.

When it came to budget cuts, Californians were split on whether to cut defense spending by $600 billion, as required in the budget deal agreed to by Obama and Republicans last year. Democrats backed the cuts by almost 2 to 1, while independent voters gave it narrow support and Republicans strongly objected.

No substitute cuts passed muster, however. Seventy percent of Californians rejected replacing the defense cuts with ones to spending on education and healthcare. All major groups but Republicans shared that view; Republicans were split on domestic cuts.

Objections ran even stronger to proposed reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits, part of the turf on which the presidential campaign was fought. At least 4 in 5 white voters, Latinos and Democrats rejected such cuts, as did 75% of Republicans and independent voters.

"You have to feel bad for voters," said poll director Dan Schnur of the Jesse M. Unruh School of Politics at USC. "After a yearlong presidential campaign, no one has bothered to tell them that raising taxes on people making over $250,000 does not balance the federal budget. No one on either side.

"Obama said the wealthy should pay their fair share. Romney said it would kill jobs. But neither one of them told voters that balancing the budget is a lot tougher than that."

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