The Stunning ‘Role of Government’ Numbers

by Stuart Rothenberg February 8, 2018 · 9:12 AM EST

While most people seem fascinated by shifts in presidential job approval and national ballot tests, I’ve always thought that the “role of government” question asked in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The responses to that question offer interesting insights into how voters see government, which, in turn, affects how they view the two parties and how they behave when the next election rolls around.

Officeholders and activists tend to be ideologues, viewing every election result and legislative initiative from their own worldview.

Conservatives always favor less government, while progressives favor more, no matter what government is doing at a particular moment. But Americans as a whole are more pragmatic.

They swing from thinking there is too much government to thinking that government is doing too little. Invariably, their attitudes reflect the news, the behavior of Congress and the agenda of the president.

During activist, liberal presidencies, voters start showing their nervousness about too much government, too much regulation and too much social engineering. They tilt toward thinking that government is doing things better left to the private sector.

But during a more pro-business, conservative administration, those same voters worry that the private sector will abuse its freedom and power. And they start to think that government isn’t doing enough to protect the rights of individuals.

The “role of government” question, which has been asked by the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey since at least 1995, seeks to take the public’s temperature about the correct role of government. The two most recent polls that asked respondents about their views of government were conducted after Trump became president — April 2017 and January 2018.

Sizable shifts
Both surveys showed a dramatic swing toward concern that government is not doing enough “to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.”

In the Jan. 13-17, 2018, survey, 58 percent of adults said government should do more, while only 38 percent said government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” — a 20-point difference. That is a huge gap, historically.

In most cases, the difference between the two alternatives has been in the low- to middle-single digits. While men split roughly evenly between the two alternatives in this month’s survey, women said government should “do more” by a ratio of at least 2-to-1. It was even higher for women with at least a college degree.

The change from a January 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey (the beginning of Barack Obama’s second year in the White House) is remarkable.

While 45 percent of women with at least a college degree said in 2010 that government should do more, 69 percent said so this year — an increase of 24 points.

Among whites, the number saying government should do more shot up from 37 percent in 2010 to 54 percent this month.

And in the suburbs, respondents calling for more government action grew from 39 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2018.

The large margins among all respondents favoring “more government” is a dramatic change from surveys conducted a few years ago, when just a few points separated the two groups.

In July 2015, 50 percent of respondents said government should do more to help people, while 46 percent said it was doing too many things better left to business and individuals.

In November 2014, the gap was 6 points (52 percent “do more” to 46 percent “doing too much”). And in June 2014, 50 percent of Americans thought government was doing too many things, while only 46 percent thought government should do more.

In fact, the last time those favoring “more government” had an edge comparable to this month’s survey was in September 2007, when respondents said the government should do more by a margin of 17 points. Of course, Barack Obama was elected president shortly, about a year later.

Trump factor
Before you jump to conclusions about the midterms or 2020, let me offer two caveats.

First, the “role of government” numbers can jump around (sometimes because of short-term events), so it is wise to be cautious about reading too much into a survey or two.

For example, in June 2013, equal numbers of respondents thought government was doing too much and not doing enough. Three months later, by 8 points, respondents thought government should do more. Nine months later, respondents, by 4 points, thought government was doing too much.

Second, Donald Trump’s agenda isn’t easily classified as either “pro-government” or “pro-business.”

While he actively promotes deregulation and empowering corporate America, he has also been active highlighting trade issues, criticizing individual companies and advocating more jobs.

Given that, it probably isn’t surprising that the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 30 percent of Trump voters saying that government isn’t doing enough, compared to only 12 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who said government is doing too many things.

So Trump isn’t necessarily in as bad a position as you might think, given the responses to the “role of government” question.

Still, the dramatic shift in sentiment about the government’s role and behavior from before Trump’s election to after suggests that many voters believe the president and his party have gone too far to the right, favoring business and private groups at the expense of many Americans.

Moreover, the “role of government” numbers seem consistent with the president’s poor job approval numbers even at a time of economic expansion and strong Wall Street performance.

Together, the responses from the two polls are a warning to the GOP about what November could look like.