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How Policies Discussed in Democratic Debate Fare With the Public

How Policies Discussed in Democratic Debate Fare With the Public

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two most prominent candidates who took part in Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, talked about or referenced a wide variety of proposals and issue positions as they attempted to win the support of the Democratic base. Gallup looks at how different subjects brought up in the debate by Sanders, Clinton or moderator Anderson Cooper fare with the American public.

Sanders declared himself a Democratic socialist and host Anderson Cooper cited a Gallup poll as context when asking Sanders about this.

The Gallup data cited by Cooper referred to long-standing Gallup trends in which the American public is asked if they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who happened to have a number of religious, ethnic, demographic or political characteristics. In the most recent asking, "socialist" was included in the list, and the results show that 50% of Americans said they would not vote for a socialist. Forty-seven percent said they would. Socialist was at the bottom of the list of 11 characteristics tested, and the only trait which reached the majority threshold in terms of a "no" vote. Other lower-scoring attributes include an atheist presidential candidate (58% would vote for) and a Muslim candidate (60%). These data suggest that Sanders would begin a race for president in the general election with half of the population saying they would not vote for him because of his self-described ideology.

However, Sanders' "socialist" label is less toxic with Democrats -- 59% said they would possibly vote for a socialist president.


Sanders said that the government needs to support small and mid-sized businesses.

Americans like small business, and believe that governmental programs supporting small business would help improve the economy. In June, Gallup tested a broad list of 47 proposals to improve the economy to see which ones Americans would judge as "very effective." In the ensuing time, Gallup has polled 15 additional items, meaning a total of 62 items were rated by the public. Proposals aimed at assisting small businesses do very well. Fifty-eight percent of adults say "giving small businesses easier access to loans to start or expand their business" would be very effective in improving the economy, and 57% believe lowering the tax rate on small businesses would be effective. Both of these policies receive some of the highest levels of support among all of the policies Gallup tested.

Small business is one of Americans' most trusted institutions. This year, 67% said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in small businesses, second only to the military (72%).

Both Clinton and Sanders support higher minimum wage.

Gallup has found consistently that the public supports raising the minimum wage. In 2013, more than three-quarters (76%) of the country supported raising the minimum wage to $9 (neither candidate endorsed a $9 wage -- Sanders offered $15 and Clinton did not give a specific figure), including a majority of Republicans. Another 69% of Americans back an inflation-proof minimum wage that adjusts in value as the overall value of the dollar changes.

Sanders offered raising the minimum wage as one way to fix what he believes is the greatest threat to the economy -- inequality. Building from that logic, Sanders probably sees raising the minimum wage as an effective way to improve the economy. In separate questioning, 44% of Americans say that raising the minimum wage would be very effective in improving the economy, making it the 17th-most effective proposal of the 62 items Gallup asked about.

Clinton said companies should share profits with the workers who helped make those profits.

Gallup tested the perceived economic effectiveness of "providing tax incentives for companies that offer employee profit sharing and employee ownership plans" and found that 33% of Americans said it would be very effective in improving the U.S. economy. This puts it below average out of the 62 economic proposals tested.

Sanders advocated making healthcare a fundamental right of citizenship.

Sanders said that the U.S. is "the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee healthcare to all of our people." Fifty-two percent of Americans, however, say it is not the government's responsibility to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage.

These attitudes have changed over time. A vast majority of Americans supported Sanders' stance with 69% in 2006 saying yes, it is a government responsibility. Positions shifted in 2009 and opposition hardened after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Sanders and Clinton asserted that the wealthy should pay more in taxes.

Clinton's introductory remarks asserted, "Right now, the wealthy pay too little and the middle class pays too much." Her assertion rings at least partly true in the minds of many Americans. In April of this year, 62% of the country said that upper-income people pay too little in taxes. On the other hand, less than half (46%) said "middle-income" people pay too much in taxes, giving somewhat more tepid support to the idea that the middle class needs immediate tax relief.

Both Clinton and Sanders advocate increasing income taxes on the wealthy. This is a highly acceptable concept to the American public. Testing going back to the Depression days shows that a majority of Americans favor redistribution by heavy taxes on the rich. This year, Gallup's update showed that 52% said they believe the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.

Clinton and Sanders both advocated paid family leave.

The proposal to "provide at least 12 weeks of paid family leave, two weeks of paid vacation and one week of paid sick days for all U.S. workers" tested at a 45% "very effective" rating in Gallup's economic database. This put it in 16th place out of 62 economic proposals tested.

Sanders said that he received a D-minus rating from the NRA, and Clinton said, "It's time the entire country stood up against the NRA."

Sanders boasted about his poor rating from the NRA as a way to persuade fellow Democrats that he has a strong stance on gun control, despite his previous opposition to gun-control legislation while serving in Congress. Clinton in turn said the NRA was one of the enemies she has made as a public figure that she is most proud of.

Having a bad relationship with the NRA does not fit well with the national adult population, 58% of whom have a favorable view of the gun rights organization, one of the highest favorable ratings the organization has received in Gallup's history. Attitudes toward the NRA are deeply partisan. Nearly six in 10 Democrats (57%) have an unfavorable view of the NRA, according to a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 7-11, compared with 83% of Republicans who see it favorably.

Both candidates supported background checks for gun sales.

This is one of the safest positions any politician can take, with polling consistently showing over the years that very large majorities of Americans favor the idea of background checks before a gun can be sold. In an Oct. 7-11 poll, Gallup found 86% of Americans support "universal background checks for all gun purchases using a centralized database across all 50 states," similar to the approach advocated by the candidates.

Clinton and Sanders advocated pay equity for women workers.

This idea -- phrased by Gallup as "ensuring that women receive equal pay for equal work" -- is viewed as the single most effective way to improve the economy out of 62 proposals tested in Gallup's economic database. Sixty-four percent of Americans said this would be very effective in improving the U.S. economy.

Clinton says she does not yet have a position on legalizing marijuana.

If she were to listen to the American people, Clinton would come out in support of legalizing marijuana. In an Oct. 7-11 Gallup poll, 58% of Americans said they believed marijuana should be legal. This represents an issue that has seen the public consensus shift dramatically; in 1969, only 12% supported legalization of marijuana.

Sanders and Clinton both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Sanders and Clinton both oppose the new free trade agreement with 11 other Pacific-facing countries, arguing it would be bad for the U.S. economy. However, few Americans (16%) see opting out of the TPP as an effective way to improve the economy. More generally, Americans see "foreign trade" as an opportunity for economic growth rather than a threat to the economy due to U.S. goods competing with imports.

Clinton proposed more investments be made in infrastructure and clean energy.

Sanders also mentioned a need to rebuild the country's "crumbling infrastructure." Forty-two percent of Americans rate "spending more federal money on infrastructure" as a very effective way to improve the economy, putting this at an above-average effectiveness rating out of 62 economic policies Gallup has measured.

Clinton said that the U.S. needs to stand up to Russia.

International actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin first in Ukraine and now in Syria have caused alarm to many in the U.S. Clinton, in her comments, clearly holds Putin in low regard. Many Americans agree. In February, 13% of U.S. adults had a favorable opinion of Putin. In 2014, it was 9%.

Sanders, for his part, said Putin will "regret what he is doing," in terms of Russian meddling around the world. But the Russian public is showing few signs of remorse: In 2014, prior to action in Syria but after the invasion of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Putin enjoyed an 83% approval rating with his fellow Russians.

Both Clinton and Sanders said that they did not support U.S. ground troops in Syria.

In February of this year, 84% of Americans said the threat in Syria was of a "critical" nature and another 84% reported that ISIS, the terrorist group that has claimed large parts of Syrian (and Iraqi) territory and is the target of an ongoing bombing campaign by the U.S. and its allies, represented a critical threat.

But sending in ground troops to alleviate the Syrian threat or more directly confront ISIS is more controversial, although a majority of Americans (53%) said in February that they would favor sending U.S. ground troops into Syria (as well as Iraq) to help fight ISIS. Forty-three percent opposed.

Sanders and Clinton said they hoped to make every public college and university in this country tuition-free.

Half of Americans say that providing free community college education for all who want it would be very effective in improving the economy, making this one of the top-rated of the 62 economic proposals tested. This suggests approval for the general concept of making college more accessible, although the idea of making every public college free has not been tested.

Sanders advocated comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration is typically a politically sensitive topic. At the beginning of this year, 60% of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the current levels of immigration, most of whom were dissatisfied because they wanted less immigration rather than more. But most Americans support some sort of reform plan that provides a "pathway to citizenship," as Sanders advocated. In August of this year, 65% of U.S. adults said those illegal immigrants already in this country should "remain in the U.S. and become citizens if they meet certain requirements over time." Among Democrats, this proposal had 80% support.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport
Andrew Dugan is a Research Consultant at Gallup.

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