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Polling Matters
Cruz, Sanders and Americans Agree: Government Not Working
Polling Matters

Cruz, Sanders and Americans Agree: Government Not Working

The results of Monday night's Iowa caucuses have brought the very conservative Sen. Ted Cruz and the very liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders more directly into the media spotlight. These two senators are not only from the opposite sides of the aisle but also from the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum -- and couldn't be more different in many ways. But they very much share one common belief: Congress is broken because it does not operate with the best interests of the people in mind.

Both Cruz and Sanders have the same explanation for the out-of-control Congress. Elected representatives -- Cruz and Sanders themselves excluded, of course -- are beholden to party loyalty or to party bosses or to rich, moneyed interests or to big business or to rich people, and this forces these representatives to compromise and abandon true principles and to override the true wishes of the people.

Cruz blames "the big businesses and lobbyists who get in bed with career politicians to do nothing but grow government. And left off the list: the American taxpayer," while Sanders says, "I fear very much that, in fact, government of the people, by the people and for the people is perishing in the United States of America," and "Let's be honest and acknowledge what we are talking about. We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected. That is not, to say the least, what this country is supposed to be about. That was not … the vision of Abraham Lincoln when he talked about a nation in which we had a government of the people, by the people and for the people."

Cruz also puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of his fellow Republicans, saying last year, "I will give President Obama and the Senate Democrats credit. They are willing to crawl over broken glass with a knife between their teeth to fight for [their] principles. Unfortunately, leadership on my side of the aisle does not demonstrate the same commitment to principles."

So we have two leading contenders for the two party nominations who have gained success to date by focusing on their (shared) agreement about broken government and its evils -- even though, of course, both are current members of that government.

This focus, I would say, does indeed resonate with the views of the majority of the American people. Congress' job approval is 16%; 34% of Americans are satisfied with our system of government and the way it works (down by half from 15 years ago); dysfunctional government was overall the single most important U.S. problem Americans mentioned throughout 2015; and 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the legislative branch of government, within a few percentage points of the lowest reading in Gallup's history of this measure.

Both candidates thus strike the right chord to fit the mood of the American people at this juncture. If elected, Cruz would somehow attempt to force change by getting Congress to do what he thinks is right, while if Sanders is elected, he would somehow force Congress to do what he thinks is right. (Both men are sitting senators and haven't had much success in convincing others to change their views so far. But presumably they think they would have more leverage as president in bending Congress to make what they perceive to be the right decisions than they have as senators.)

The next consideration, of course, is exactly what each thinks Congress should be doing if he were somehow able to get it to do his bidding. And here we have a major divergence in the two candidates' desired paths. Cruz and Sanders have made many, many proposals for what Congress should or should not be doing, most of them significantly different from what the other candidate is proposing. Both candidates assume that enough of the wise public is on board with what they propose to get them elected president.

Some of what Cruz and Sanders propose does resonate with the public, and other proposals are totally out of sync with majority public opinion. Ultimately it will be how well the two match -- these visions of what Congress should be doing with public opinion -- that will help determine whether either of these two sinks or swims in this year's swirling election waters.

We'll be going through all of the major candidates' proposals in more depth here in the weeks to come. But I can list a couple of examples in which both candidates are in sync with public opinion, and a couple in which they are not.

  • Cruz says he would do a lot more to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. That, in general terms, is something the public agrees with, with more than eight in 10 favoring tightening security at U.S. borders, at the top of a list of proposed immigration reforms.
  • Sanders would increase taxes on the wealthy and on big corporations. Americans agree with this in concept, with more than six in 10 saying money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among all the people, and a majority favoring "heavy" taxes on the rich in order to redistribute income.
  • Cruz is against gun control, while Americans very strongly favor more stringent background checks.
  • And Sanders is in favor of a woman's personal right to make decisions about abortion without restrictions, while the majority of the public says abortion should be either totally illegal or legal in only a few circumstances.

The bottom line here: These two candidates' strong disapproval of the way Congress operates -- which in and of itself fits with majority public opinion -- will take them only so far. The two have not talked much about fixing the way Congress operates procedurally, which might find some strong support among Americans (who, for example, favor term limits).

But what Cruz and Sanders have talked about are specific actions they claim they can compel Congress to take if elected president. Americans agree with some and disagree with others, and if these two manage to keep moving through the primary process, it is the level of this agreement or disagreement that will help determine their success.


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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