Much was made of recent polling showing a spike in the percentage of Americans who say they want a more active or bigger government. An April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 57 percent of Americans wanted to see “government do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” — up seven points from 2015. In the April Pew Poll, 48 percent said they were supportive of “bigger government with more services” — up seven points from 2016.
Is this a sign that Americans are more comfortable with the big-government populism promoted in the 2016 campaign? President Trump, of course, campaigned on spending $1 trillion on infrastructure projects, building a big, beautiful border wall, and protecting pricey entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. Democrats like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren promote “free college” and single payer health care.
Yet, if you dig into the numbers you find that the election didn’t shake up traditional views of the role of government as much as it reinforced existing ones.
First, take a look at the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Back in 2015, those who said they wanted government to “do more” looked pretty much like the Democratic coalition: women, younger voters, women with a college degree, liberals and non-whites. Those who thought government was “doing too much” looked like the traditional GOP coalition: men, whites, whites with a college degree or better, and those 50 years old and over.
Two years later, the views of these voters remain pretty much intact. Those who we would describe as a member of the “Trump coalition”—white men who have less than a college degree—are the least supportive of a more active government. Meanwhile, those most supportive of active government are representative of the type of voters who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016: women, non-white voters and those with a college degree or more. In fact the biggest jump in support for bigger government came from white college educated voters. In 2015, just 44 percent of white voters with a college degree or higher wanted government to do more. In 2018, it was 58 percent—a 14 point jump.
In other words, despite Trump’s populist talk, the voters who supported him aren’t any more interested in a muscular government than they were in 2015.
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