By Russell Berman - 10/13/10 10:10 PM EDT
Voters in 10 battleground congressional districts strongly back a plan to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 a year, according to The Hill 2010 Midterm Election poll.
The survey of likely voters in 10 states found rare bipartisan support for the position of President Obama and Democratic Party leaders, who oppose extending the tax cuts for the top income brackets.
Sixty-three percent of respondents said they backed an extension of the tax cuts only for income brackets below the $250,000 mark, more than twice the percentage of people who said they were opposed.
The support for continuing the so-called middle-class tax cuts was consistent among Democrats (65 percent), Republicans (64 percent) and independents (63 percent).
The Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year, have become a political flashpoint in the race for control of Congress. While Obama and most Democrats want to extend the current rates for middle-income families and let those for the top earners rise, Republicans have pushed to extend all the tax cuts, arguing against any tax increase in a fragile economic recovery. Democrats say extending the tax cuts for the wealthy would explode the budget deficit by $700 billion over a decade.
The Hill poll, conducted last week by the firm Penn, Schoen and Berland, found a sharply different political dynamic depending on how the tax cut question is worded.
Respondents who were asked simply if they favored or opposed “extending the Bush tax cuts” — without specifying the income bracket — broke along party lines. Republicans were strongly in favor, by a margin of 82 percent to 10. Independent voters also supported an extension of the tax cuts, 58 percent to 30 percent opposed. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, however, Democrats opposed a general extension. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats responded in opposition, 28 percent favored the extension and 19 percent — nearly one in five — were undecided.
When the $250,000 threshold was used, the partisan split disappeared.
The pollsters asked half of the respondents the general question about the tax cuts and asked the other half the more specific question of whether they supported an extension only for families earning $250,000 or below. No voter received both questions.
While the poll suggests that Democrats have voters on their side, they may have missed their opportunity to take full advantage. Lawmakers debated holding a vote on extending the middle-class tax cuts before the election, but opposition from Republicans and disagreement among Democrats led them to punt the issue until a lame-duck session in November. Republicans criticized Democrats for leaving town, even as the GOP fought a plan that would extend some, but not all, of the tax cuts.
Democrats “left many people not knowing what the tax rates will be next year,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Pennsylvania.
House and Senate leaders have pledged to address the Bush tax cuts, including those on capital gains and estates, before the end of the year.
Led by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, some strategists urged the party to seize on the tax-cut issue. A poll conducted by Greenberg in September that tested both the Democratic and Republican messages gave Democrats a strong advantage. Like The Hill survey, the Greenberg poll found support for extending the middle-class tax cuts while letting those for top earners expire.
Top national party leaders, including Obama, have pounded Republicans on the tax-cut divide, portraying the GOP as the party of the wealthy while insisting that Democrats represent the interests of the middle class. But many Democratic candidates have not focused as much on the issue in their effort to avoid nationalizing their individual campaigns, Madonna said.
“They are running away from Washington,” Madonna said. “They’re not talking about Washington policy at all.”
Some Democratic candidates have also joined the GOP in backing at least a temporary extension of all the Bush tax cuts.
The Hill poll found solid bipartisan support for extending only the middle-class tax cuts throughout the 10 congressional districts. In each of the districts polled, a clear majority of Republicans favored the limited extension, with the closest margin coming in New Hampshire’s 2nd district, where 53 percent of Republicans responded favorably. In two districts — Tennessee’s 8th and West Virginia’s 1st — a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats favored keeping only the middle-class rates in place.