by Richard C. Auxier, Research Assistant, Pew Research Center
The first hour of Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, the last before Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, was dominated by talk of the economy. Perhaps in recognition of the debate’s venue in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, moderator Anderson Cooper invoked the former president during the first question of the night, repeating Reagan’s own famous debate question, “Are Americans better off than they were eight years ago?”
While the two current front-runners for the GOP nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, admitted that there were problems with the economy, neither would endorse the idea that American was worse off economically after eight years of the Bush administration.
“[T]his president did pull us out of a deep recession. He put in place two tax cuts, which did get the — your country out of a recession and helped rebuild the country,” said Romney.
“I think we are better off overall, if you look at the entire eight-year period, when you look at the millions of jobs that have been created, the improvement in the economy, et cetera,” said McCain.
While there is a sizable partisan gap in ratings of the national economy, even among Republicans fewer than half view economic conditions with favor. Currently, 46% of Republicans, and just 24% of independents and 15% of Democrats, give the economy at least a good rating.
“I don’t think we are,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, disagreeing with the front-runners on the state of the economy. “They’re hurting because they’re not making a lot more money to haul something, but they’re spending a lot more money to get it done. And all over our economy with the unemployment up to 5 percent across the nation that means there are a lot of families today that don’t have a paycheck, and if you don’t have a paycheck, it’s hard to put groceries on the table and it’s hard to pay the rent.”
Huckabee’s opinion mirrors growing economic concerns among moderate Republicans who have grown increasingly sour about the current state of the economy. Over the past four years, conservative Republicans have consistently been more positive about the economy than their moderate and liberal counterparts, but the size of this gap has grown. Currently just 29% of moderate-to-liberal Republicans rate the economy positively; by contrast, a small majority of conservative Republicans (54%) still do so.
The economic discussion is a reflection of the emergence of the economy as the most important issue in 2008. Roughly one-in-three Americans (34%) cite economic problems as the nation’s most grave concern, compared with 27% who say the war in Iraq is the biggest problem facing the nation. A year ago the reverse was true with 42% citing Iraq as the most important problem in the wake of Bush’s proposal to increase the number of troops there.
The relative importance of economic problems has risen substantially in recent months. In September, the number of Americans citing Iraq as the nation’s biggest problem was nearly twice the number who cited economic problems (37% vs. 20%). Among Republicans, 27% currently see the economy as the most important problem facing the nation, compared with 21% who cite Iraq.
The Bush Tax Cuts
Tax cuts were a major point of contention between McCain and Romney. When Romney was asked why he had claimed McCain would follow a “liberal Democratic course” as president, Romney observed that McCain had twice voted against Bush’s tax cuts.
McCain responded with his own accusation about Romney’s tax cutting bona fides. “As I understand it, his record was that he raised taxes by $730 million,” said McCain. The senator also twice mentioned the need to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for the sake of the economy.
According to an analysis by nytimes.com, the word “tax” was uttered by the candidates and moderators 26 times while “taxes” was mentioned 12 times.1
Making the income tax cuts permanent was last on a list of 21 public priorities for the president and Congress for 2008 according to a January Pew survey, with Republicans (44%) viewing it as more of a priority than Democrats (37%).
Reducing middle class taxes was a higher priority, with 46% of the public seeing it as a “top priority.” Democrats, however, saw this as a higher priority, with 50% of Democrats declaring it a “top priority” compared with 46% of Republicans.
Read more about the public’s election year priorities.
1 “Republican Debate: Analyzing the Details,” nytimes.com.