Sabato's Crystal Ball

Who’s Afraid of Big Government? Not Us

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist June 11th, 2009

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Barack Obama has been pulling the wool over the eyes of the American people. At least that’s what some conservative pundits are claiming. Despite his current popularity, commentators such as Michael Barone, Dick Morris, and Karl Rove are predicting that Mr. Obama’s approval ratings will come crashing down to earth once the public understands what he’s really up to: dramatically expanding the role of government in American society.

Notwithstanding the dire condition of the U.S. economy, the failures of some of the nation’s largest banks and investment houses, revelations of enormous salaries and bonuses paid to corporate CEOs who ran their companies into the ground and, of course, the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections, these pundits claim that Americans retain a fundamental faith in the virtues of the free market and a deep skepticism about the ability of government to solve the country’s problems. Therefore, they argue, President Obama’s attempts to use the power of the federal government to stimulate the economy, expand access to health care, improve the quality of education, reduce dependence on imported oil, and address the causes of climate change will eventually be his political undoing.

But if Americans are deeply suspicious of activist government, why has the Republican Party fared so poorly in recent elections, losing control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008? According to many conservatives, these defeats were caused by the Party abandoning its conservative principles and embracing big government. In their view, the GOP squandered its reputation as the party of limited government during the Bush years by supporting major expansions of programs such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind and failing to rein in government spending. As a result, conservative voters had little reason to prefer Republican candidates to Democratic candidates.

Evidence from the 2008 American National Election Study

Do Americans, despite the current economic crisis, continue to oppose governmental activism and prefer reliance on the free market to solve the country’s problems as the President’s conservative critics argue? Some of these critics have selectively cited results from recent media polls to support this claim. However, this conclusion is not supported by the best available evidence about attitudes toward the role of government in the American public-evidence that comes from the 2008 American National Election Study.

The 2008 ANES is the most recent in a series of election surveys that have been conducted in every presidential election year and most midterm election years since 1948. These surveys have provided much of the data used by political scientists to study elections and voting behavior in the United States. The 2008 survey involved in-depth personal interviews with a representative sample of more than 2000 eligible voters touching on a wide variety of issues and other election-related topics. Among the questions included in the survey were three that dealt directly with the role of government. Each question asked respondents to choose between a pair of statements about the proper role of government in dealing with the nation’s problems.

  1. “The main reason government has become bigger over the years is because it has gotten involved in things that people should do for themselves” OR “government has become bigger because the problems we face have become bigger.”
  2. “We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems” OR “the free market can handle these problems without government being involved.”
  3. “The less government, the better” OR “there are more things that government should be doing.”

In response to all three questions, a majority of Americans came down on the side of governmental activism. Fifty-six percent said that government had gotten bigger because the country’s problems had gotten bigger, 68 percent said that we need a strong government to handle complex economic problems, and 59 percent said that there were more things government should be doing.

These three questions can be combined to form a scale measuring support for activist government. Scores on this scale range from zero for those who consistently opposed activist government to three for those who consistently favored activist government. The distribution of eligible voters on the scale is displayed in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Support for Activist Government in the American Public

Source: 2008 ANES

The results in Figure 1 show that 64 percent of eligible voters came down on the activist side of the scale and almost 40 percent were consistent supporters of activist government. In contrast, less than 20 percent of eligible voters were consistent opponents of activist government. These findings clearly contradict the claims of conservative pundits that Americans today have more faith in the free market than in government programs for dealing with the country’s problems. They indicate that support for activist government is alive and well in the American public.

Interestingly, support for governmental activism in dealing with economic problems was not related to support for government intrusion in the personal lives of Americans. In fact, according to the data from the 2008 ANES, support for government regulation of personal conduct was associated with opposition to government intervention in the economic sphere. For example, 80 percent of respondents who consistently opposed governmental activism wanted to maintain a government ban on same sex marriage while only 53 percent of respondents who consistently supported governmental activism wanted to maintain the ban.

Beyond the distribution of opinion on the governmental activism scale, the data from the 2008 ANES show that there was a strong relationship between voters’ opinions about activist government and their presidential candidate preferences. The results displayed in Table 1 show that voters were not confused about the differences between the positions of the Democratic and Republican candidates: almost 80 percent of those who consistently supported governmental activism voted for Barack Obama while almost 90 percent of those who consistently opposed governmental activism voted for John McCain.

Table 1. 2008 Presidential Vote by Support for Activist Government

Source: 2008 ANES

Contrary to the claims of his conservative critics, there is no evidence that President Obama has been pulling the wool over the eyes of the American people. Fully 80 percent of Obama voters came down on the pro-government side of the governmental activism scale and over 50 percent consistently took the pro-government side. It remains to be seen whether the President will succeed in convincing Congress to enact his policy agenda and whether those policies will actually work. However, in proposing to use the power of the federal government to address the nation’s problems, Mr. Obama is clearly doing what a majority of Americans voted for in 2008.


Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill). He can be contacted via email at polsaa@emory.edu.