The Salient Majority

Even as American voters have entertained the prospect of electing a "compassionate conservative" as president, there is little evidence the public is in a conservative mood. In fact, an unusual poll conducted this summer suggests that Americans hold liberal views on important taxing-and-spending issues.

The nonprofit Center on Policy Attitudes joined with the Internet company Knowledge Networks to plumb voters' opinions on how the $460-billion federal discretionary budget should be spent. Rather than pose a series of simplistic questions, researchers used an Internet spreadsheet that allowed each of the 721 respondents to divide the budget into 12 categories: Space and Science Research, Environment, Job Training, Defense, Humanitarian and Economic Aid to Foreign Countries, Education, Military Aid, Transportation, the State Department, the UN and UN Peacekeeping, Federal Administration of Justice, and Medical Research. (This process of seeking informed opinions rather than simple yes-or-no answers resembles the "deliberative opinion poll" that James S. Fishkin described in "Talk of the Tube: How to Get Teledemocracy Right," The American Prospect, Fall 1992.)

Researchers then took the imaginary budgets and compared them with the 1999 federal budget. The results supported liberal priorities and called into question many of the issues conservatives have been campaigning on. Respondents overwhelmingly chose to more than double discretionary spending on education, job training, and medical research. Over half elected to increase funding to protect the environment, build new highways and mass transit systems, and reduce the national debt. How would they pay for it? Nearly 70 percent of those polled wanted to lower defense spending to pay for increases in other programs. Overall, they preferred to cut military spending by nearly 24 percent and to reduce military aid to foreign countries by about 8 percent.

Proposals to spend the federal budget surplus on a large tax cut fared only slightly better. Fewer than one in three respondents opted to use their imaginary surplus on a tax rebate. Far more popular were proposals to pay down the national debt and to save Social Security.