June 4, 2007

The 6-3-07 Democratic Debate: Comparing Candidate Views with Public Opinion

by Richard C. Auxier and Alec Tyson

Eight candidates for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president squared off for two hours last night in a debate held in New Hampshire and televised nationally by CNN. Here is a run-down of how their views on key issues stacked up against the attitudes of the general public and of self-identified Democrats, Republicans and independents, as measured by recent Pew Research Center surveys.

Terrorism

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The foiled terror plot at JFK Airport directed the first question of the Democratic debate to the issue of terrorism. Sen. Barack Obama, asked whether the Bush administration’s effort to thwart terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been a success, stated that the world is more dangerous today in part because of the war in Iraq. A large majority of Democrats (60%) agree that the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, while just 22% of Democrats say it has helped. The general public is divided on the issue; 38% say the Iraq war has helped the war on terrorism; 44% say it has hurt the war on terrorism.

Sen. Hillary Clinton took a different stance, saying she believes Americans are safer now than they were before 9/1l. In a December 2006 survey, 31% of the public said the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the U.S. had gone down since September 11th attacks, while 23% said it had gone up and a 41% plurality said it was the same. While Clinton finds support for her views among the general public, Democrats are more skeptical of such claims; 33% of Democrats say the ability of terrorists to launch another attack is greater than it was, while just 21% say it is less and 39% say it is the same.

In light of the recent terror plot at JFK airport, Rep. Dennis Kucinich was asked about his vote against the Patriot Act. Kucinich responded with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, saying “those who would give up their essential liberties to achieve a sense of security deserve neither”; he also said that as president he would instruct the Justice Department to overturn the Patriot Act as unconstitutional. This position finds support within his party; a January 2006 survey found that a majority (53%) of Democrats agree that the Patriot Act goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties, some 25% consider it a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists. The public as a whole is more divided on the issue with 39% saying it is a necessary tool and 38% saying it goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties. No other Democratic candidate took a clear stance on the Patriot Act.

Iraq

Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters, a plurality (38%) name the war in Iraq as the most important issue in deciding between the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Not surprisingly, Iraq came up early in the debate and much of the first half-hour was spent discussing the war.

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There was general agreement among the candidates on the need to end the war in Iraq — a viewpoint that puts them in sync with the party’s rank-and-file, some three-quarters of whom say the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible. Only 19% of Democrats believe the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. However, a more contentious debate may await the Democratic nominee in the general election, as the public as a whole is more ambivalent on the war; 41% support keeping troops in Iraq, 53% favor withdrawal as soon as possible.

The war funding bill took center stage within the Iraq debate, with Clinton defending her vote against the bill by saying that the president is unwilling to change course in Iraq and it was time to send him a message. In an April 2007 survey, 48% of Democrats said Democratic leaders in Washington should insist on a timeline for withdrawal, while 29% favored a timeline but wanted Democratic leaders to work with Bush.

Former Sen. John Edwards criticized Clinton and Obama on their war vote for not making their positions known before the vote and not leading on the issue. Edwards characterized himself as a leader but he has not yet convinced Democrats on this point. Just 12% of Democrats think Edwards would be the strongest leader of the Democratic field according to an April 2007 survey. A 37% plurality name Clinton as the candidate they think would be the strongest leader as president, while 20% name Obama and 19% name former vice president Al Gore.

Obama countered Edwards’ criticism by saying that “I opposed this war from the start” while Edwards voted in 2003 to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq, “…so you are about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.” On this point, Obama finds strong support from his party; fully 70% of Democrats now call the decision to use military force in Iraq the wrong decision, only 23% call it the right decision. Among the general public, a narrow plurality (47%) call it the wrong decision while 45% call it the right decision.

Dealing with Iran

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Democrats took a much less combative tone than their Republican candidates when answering questions on Iran, with most using the question to discuss the need for diplomacy throughout the region. Iran is a divisive partisan issue, with 54% of Democrats saying it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran and 33% saying it is more important to be firm with the country. Republicans say the opposite, with 60% believing it is more important to be firm and 28% saying it is more important to avoid conflict. The country as a whole is evenly split on the question — with 43% taking each position.

Clinton responded to a hypothetical question about what to do if diplomacy fails in Iran by attacking the current administration and describing Vice President Dick Cheney as “hardly diplomatic.” Cheney is an unpopular figure among Democrats, with 77% of Democrats having a mostly or very unfavorable opinion of the current vice president. Clinton’s response was similar to Rudy Giuliani’s response to a question on social issues during a previous debate, where he answered the question by attacking Clinton, an equally unpopular figure among GOP voters.

Paying for Health Care

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With 13% of Democrats listing health care as the one issue most important to them, it is no surprise the subject was not only discussed, but a point of contention between the top-tier candidates. Edwards was asked about claims by Governor Bill Richardson and Clinton that they would not have to raise taxes to implement their plans. Before discussing the range of coverage in their plans, Edwards complimented Obama for addressing how he would pay for his plan; he also said people are “sick” of listening to politicians describe how they could provide universal care but not being honest about the costs. Pew polling shows there is indeed an appetite among Democrats — as well as the public as a whole — to pay new taxes for guaranteed coverage. More than three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and two-thirds of all Americans (67%) say they favor guaranteed health insurance even if it means raising taxes.

Repealing Bush Tax Cuts

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While discussing health care, the candidates were challenged about how they would pay for their new spending proposals. Clinton asserted that, “Now, I don’t think there is any Democrat that is not going to let the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire.” While taxes have often been a difficult topic for Democrats in a general election, repealing the Bush cuts is not an unpopular position to hold in the Democratic primary. Only 12% of Democrats in a November 2006 poll believed that all of the Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. Many Democrats (43%) agreed with Clinton that the tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed, and 30% want all the cuts to be repealed. Republicans favor keeping all the tax cuts (56%), while Americans as a whole are more split, with 30% wanting to keep all the cuts, 34% favoring the elimination of cuts for wealthy Americans, and 22% for favoring the removal of all the cuts.

Immigration

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Only 3% of Democrats name immigration as the most important issue in choosing between the candidates for the Democratic nomination. At the same time, fully 66% of Democrats disapprove of the way Bush is handling the nation’s immigration policy. Richardson laid out his immigration plan, noting that he did not support a fence on the border with Mexico. Some 56% of Democrats side with Richardson in opposing a fence, while 38% support building a fence. The general public is about evenly divided on the issue with 46% favoring a fence and 48% opposing a fence.

Richardson was joined by Sen. Joe Biden and Obama in expressing support for allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal working status. On this, they are on firm ground within their party. Democrats favor a proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for several years to gain legal working status and the possibility of citizenship in the future by more than two-to-one (66%-31%). The general public is somewhat more mixed with 59% favoring such a proposal and 37% expressing opposition.

Gas Prices and Global Warming

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Senator Dodd was asked how he would deal with rising gas prices as president, an issue cited by a Pew study as the most followed news story during the week of May 21. Dodd answered by tying gas prices to the larger problems of energy and global warming. Global warming may well be an issue throughout the campaign, with 85% of Democrats — and 77% of the country — believing it is a very or somewhat serious problem.

Education

While education was cited by 12% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents as the one issue that will be most important to their primary vote — coming in behind only Iraq, the economy and health care — the subject was not discussed during the debate until very late when a recent high school graduate asked the candidates about national service. Richardson was the one candidate who said education would be the focus of his first 100 days in office.

Homosexual Rights

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All the candidates were in agreement that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, with Biden declaring that Gen. Peter Pace was “flat wrong” to declare that “don’t ask/don’t tell” be retained as military policy. Allowing gays and lesbians to serve is both a widely held position among Democrats (70% favoring) and among the public at large (60%). Among Republicans, however, opinion is evenly divided, with 46% favoring and 46% opposing the rights of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

When the debate turned to allowing gays and lesbians to marry, there was less discussion. Edwards received the questions on marriage and, while applauding New Hampshire’s recent decision to allow civil unions, would not commit to supporting gay marriage. None of the other candidates discussed marriage during the debate. This may be because only about half of Democrats (49%) believe gay and lesbian marriages should be legal, and only slightly more than a third (37%) of all Americans agree.