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How Policies Discussed in the GOP Debate Fare With the Public
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How Policies Discussed in the GOP Debate Fare With the Public

The third Republican debate on Wednesday night may be best remembered for the contentious relationship between the presidential candidates and the CNBC moderators, but the debate did touch on a number of hot-button political issues. Gallup looks at how some of the policy proposals or positions on these issues from the 11 candidates fare with the American public.

Tax Reform

One of the most frequently discussed policy areas in the debate was tax reform. Many candidates discussed specific proposals to reduce the federal income tax, including Donald Trump's statement that "We're reducing taxes to 15%"; Ben Carson's similar statement that "the rate … is gonna be much closer to 15%"; Ted Cruz's discussion of his own 10% flat tax; Carly Fiorina's proposal that she would reduce the 73,000-page tax code to three pages; Jeb Bush's proposal that "Simplifying the code and lowering rates, both for corporations and -- and personal rates, is exactly what we need to do"; and Rand Paul's statement that his tax plan "is unique in the sense that my tax plan actually gets rid of the payroll tax as well. It shifts it to the business, and it would allow middle-class people to get a tax cut."

Taxes as a general topic do not appear on Americans' radar as one of the nation's most important problems; in October, only 1% specifically said taxes are the top U.S. problem. At the same time, a third of Americans consider some kind of economic problem to be the nation's top problem, and some GOP candidates might argue that tax reform is an important way to improve the economy and many of its underlying problems.

To some extent, many Americans agree with this logic. Forty-four percent say "Providing tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families" would be very effective in terms of fixing the economy, placing it as the 17th-rated among 62 economic proposals Gallup has tested. A proposal to simplify the federal tax code, another oft-cited priority at the debate, is just below tax cuts on the list. A slightly smaller 40% say reducing federal taxes for all Americans would be very effective, putting this 26th on the list, still above average.

About half of Americans say the amount of taxes they pay is "too high," suggesting they would welcome some tax relief. This percentage is about the same as it has been for the last 12 years, but lower than readings found prior to the Bush tax cuts. In a similar vein, a January Gallup survey shows that 46% of Americans are dissatisfied with the amount Americans pay in federal taxes and think taxes should be lower. From a different perspective, 56% of Americans say their own income tax is fair. Over the past three years, this percentage has been lower than it had been previously; as few as 45% in 1999 agreed that their income tax was fair, but after the Bush tax cuts, that percentage jumped to 64% in 2003, only to gradually begin to slide downward from that point.

Size and Role of the Federal Government

A number of Republican candidates focused on the federal government in the debate, with most comments decrying the size and power of government and contending that government is too involved in average Americans' lives. Candidate comments included Fiorina's remarks that "We have to reduce the size and power of government" and that "I will cut this government down to size and hold it accountable"; Carson's assertion that we need to "get the government out of our lives"; John Kasich's proposal that "In order to get this economy moving again, I call for freezing regulations for a year except for the problem of public safety"; Chris Christie's view that "The government has lied to you and they have stolen from you"; Bush's statement that "It's always a solution of the left to create more government from the federal government"; and Paul's opinion that "Liberty thrives when government is small. I want a government so small I can barely see it."

The federal government does present itself as a vulnerable target for disapprobation in the public's eyes. Dysfunctional government arises as the most frequently mentioned single response when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the country; Americans say the federal government wastes 51 cents on every dollar it spends; trust in all three branches of the government is at or near all-time lows; members of Congress receive the lowest honesty and ethics ratings of any profession; overall congressional approval is at 13%; and the public's positive ratings of the federal government are the lowest of more than 20 business and industry sectors measured in Gallup's annual update.

Additionally, Americans tilt toward saying the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, although a substantial minority of 40% say the government should do more to solve the country's problems. A majority of Americans agree that the government has too much power. In September, nearly half of Americans (49%) said they believe the federal government poses "an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens," among the highest proportions in the question's 12-year history.

Whether fixing these problems with the government involves a massive reduction of what the government does is another issue, however. The majority of Americans, in fact, accept the premise that the government has legitimate roles to play in today's society. A Gallup question updated in September found that while 33% of Americans tend toward the view that government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions, another 35% tilt toward saying the government should take active steps in every area it can to try and improve the lives of its citizens, with 31% putting themselves in the middle between these two alternatives.

All in all, Republicans are clearly touching a live wire in their criticism of the federal government, given that at this juncture in history so many Americans have negative views of what their elected representatives are doing and managing in Washington. On the other hand, broad candidate statements that the government should be made much smaller and its power reduced do not take into account the finding that many Americans appreciate the functions of government, and some could be looking for more efficiency and effectiveness in its operation, rather than wholesale or massive cuts in what it does.

Immigration

In one of the night's exchanges, Donald Trump denied he had been critical of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the latter's vocal support for expanding H-1B visas. These visas are granted to immigrants with a particular skill set, such as computer programming, and some, such as Marco Rubio, argue that increasing these visas would be an important part of immigration reform and helpful to the American economy (though he did not make the case for this on Wednesday night). On this latter point, increasing H-1B visas or more generally changing the nation's immigration laws to allow more "skilled" immigrants to come to the U.S. or to permit those who are here to stay, fewer than three in 10 Americans (28%) think these measures would improve the economy, putting this below average of all economic proposals tested.

But rather than address the question of H-1B visas explicitly, Trump instead told moderator Becky Quick that he favors legal immigration, saying all immigrants "have to come into this country legally." Trump also referenced his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border as an enhanced border security measure. Speaking in general terms, securing the U.S. border to halt the flow of illegal immigrants is a measure 44% of Americans support, according to a 2014 poll, but Americans are also highly supportive of allowing immigrants currently living illegally in the U.S. to remain in the country if they meet certain requirements.

Only a little more than one in 10 Americans (14%) want to deport all immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. In October, 8% of Americans said immigration or "illegal aliens" was the nation's top problem, and Gallup found in September that 20% of registered voters would vote only for a major-office candidate who shares their views on immigration.

Balancing the Budget

Various candidates called for the federal government to balance its budget, rather than continue the pattern of chronic deficits that has prevailed for decades, except for a small period in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The federal deficit/federal debt is a frequent topic on Gallup's monthly most important problem update. In October, 5% of Americans said the federal budget or deficit was the country's most important problem, on par with most readings this year.

Moreover, half of Americans say requiring a balanced budget would be very effective in improving the nation's economy, one of the most popular economic policy proposals Gallup tested.

Jobs

Several candidates lamented the availability of jobs in the country, and in particular, Rubio advocated for a plan to train Americans "to do the jobs of the 21st century." Offering skills training to American citizens is indeed one of the most popular economic proposals Gallup has tested: 63% of Americans say improving job training for veterans would be very effective in improving the economy, and 46% think another effective proposal would be for the government to provide tax incentives to train workers in order to help them acquire new skills. Forty-two percent think it would be effective if the government improved its job-training programs.

Previous Gallup research also shows that when asked how best to increase the number of jobs in the U.S., Americans focus first and foremost on bringing manufacturing jobs back from overseas. In fact, 50% of Americans think that a federal government plan to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in this country would be very effective in improving the U.S. economy.

Social Security

"Saving" or "fixing" programs such as Social Security and Medicare was another promise several candidates made and this is indeed an important issue to many Americans. In April, Gallup found that 36% of nonretirees say Social Security will be a "major source" of their retirement income, up from 28% in 2001. At the same time, a majority of nonretirees (51%) believe they will not receive a benefit when they do retire, presumably because many do not believe the program will exist by that time.

Half of Americans believe that reforming Social Security so it remains solvent would be very effective in improving the U.S. economy, one of the most positive economic proposals tested. In a separate question, 51% of Americans said they would prefer that the government raise taxes rather than curb benefits (37%) to ensure the program's solvency.

Reducing Government Regulation

Another idea on the debate stage Wednesday night was the notion of rolling back government regulation. These ideas have some traction with the American people. Four in 10 (40%) think reducing regulations on small businesses would be very effective in improving the economy, and about a third think it would be good to reduce regulations on energy producers. In September, a plurality of Americans (49%) said government regulates business "too much," a figure that has been essentially static since 2009.

Social Issues

Despite the debate's ostensible focus on economic issues, the discussion also turned to hot-button social issues. Carson, most notably, defended his view that "marriage is between one man and one woman." Here, Carson is fighting against one of the most consequential and powerful societal currents in recent history. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, a record 60% of Americans said marriage between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law and have the same rights as traditional marriages. To show just how dramatically public opinion has shifted on this topic in a relatively recent amount of time, consider that in 1996, 68% of Americans said same-sex marriage should not be legal.

Planned Parenthood is an organization that was the recipient of the debate participants' ire. Congressional Republicans have been attempting to ensure that no federal money is dispensed to the health organization that also performs abortions, and this legislative battle nearly threatened to shut down the federal government earlier this year. But while Planned Parenthood is not seen as favorably as it once was, a majority of adults (59%) have a favorable impression of it. But this is true of only 35% of Republicans.

The Media

One accusation several candidates made throughout the debate was that the moderators' questions were biased or designed solely to create the type of tension between the candidates that a national audience might find entertaining. Cruz, in particular, used the occasion to fire back at the moderators, listing some of the questions they had asked as examples of "Why the American people don't trust the media." Some of these outbursts may have been driven by a desire to sidestep a difficult question, but the candidates are generally in sync with public opinion in criticizing the media. In 2015, the percentage of Americans saying they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount remained at its historical low of 40%.

Andrew Dugan is an Analyst at Gallup.
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

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