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Poll: Americans want government to "do more"

by Dante Chinni /
Image: U.S. Citizens Head To The Polls To Vote In Presidential Election
CRAWFORDVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 6: Joeann Vesecky (center) votes at a small precinct with only 4 voting cubicles in the Shell Point community on November 6, 2012 in Crawfordville, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

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Washington hasn’t given voters much to love in the last year. Just one week ago, the federal government shut down (again) due to political brinksmanship. But even in that exasperating environment, a broad range of people say that they want their government to do more, not less, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The January NBC/WSJ poll found 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” while only 38 percent agreed that “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

That 58 percent wanting to the government to “do more” is an all-time high on a question that has been asked in the poll on-and-off for more than 20 years and it reflects a larger change in the number.

Throughout President Barack Obama’s eight years in office the number stayed fairly consistent on the question of government “doing more,” largely bouncing between 46 percent and 52 percent. But in April 2017, the “do more” figure climbed to 57 percent, before this month’s 58 percent.

And perhaps more noteworthy in the January poll: a widespread desire for a government that’s more involved in addressing the nation’s problems.

More than two-thirds of women in the poll said the government should “do more” along with majorities among all age groups measured, all races, ethnicities, and education levels and among independents voters. For the United States in 2018, that’s an extraordinary amount of agreement.

What’s driving the change is hard to know for certain. It may be a reaction to the gridlock in Washington, even with one party in control of the legislative and executive arms of the government. But the low number of respondents who say the government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” seems to be a pretty direct rebuke of small government – at least for now.

The most unexpected point about the number is the time it is appearing. The U.S. economy is doing well in most peoples’ eyes – 69 percent of those polled said they are satisfied with the state of the economy.

The last time this many people said that they favored a more active government was September of 2007 when 55 percent said they wanted the government to do more. That increase in support for a “do more” government coincided with the early days of the subprime mortgage crisis. The last year has not presented any similar economic red flags.

So why are Americans interested in the government doing more in 2018? There is one big similarity to 2007: The party in control of the White House.

You can get a better understanding when you look at the groups that believe the government is doing “too much.”

There is a clear partisan divide on the question of “how much” the government should do, as might be expected. Republicans are 25 points below the national figure and supporters of President Donald Trump are even lower, 28 points below. White men without a college-education, a reliably Republican voting group, are 15 points lower.

But as low as those numbers look, the Republican support for a government that “does more” is relatively high. In January of 2010, when Barack Obama was president, only 17 percent of Republicans wanted the government to “do more.” Back in 2007, when Republican George W. Bush was in the White House, 32 of Republicans wanted the government to “do more.”

So one big factor in the higher “do more” number in 2018 may be more Republicans wanting their president do more. The poll numbers show Democrats tend to be more consistent in their desire to see a more active government.

But the NBC/WSJ poll numbers still hold real notes of caution for the GOP going into a midterm year. The broad desire for a more active government suggests Democratic candidates may have a strong talking point this fall. The poll showed the “do more” edge extended to the congressional district level.

In districts represented by Democrats, there was a massive 40-point edge for a government that “does more.” But even among districts represented by Republicans, the majority wanted to see a government that “does more” by about six points.

Those numbers won’t apply evenly, of course. Some districts are solidly behind one party or the other. But in competitive House districts, and battleground Senate races, talking positively about a more active government may bring an important edge in the fall campaigns. That favors Democrats.

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