Register poll on Obama, gay marriage and more

The Des Moines Register continues to release results from its latest statewide poll. Selzer and Co surveyed 800 Iowa adults between February 13 and 16. Bleeding Heartland discussed the Register's poll numbers on Governor Terry Branstad here.

Follow me after the jump to discuss President Barack Obama's approval inching up in Iowa, slight growth in support for same-sex marriage rights, views on ways to close the state budget gap, and more.

Friday's Des Moines Register suggested that Iowans' views of the president reflect the slight improvement in Obama's nationwide approval ratings during the past few months:

Obama's overall 48 percent approval is his highest in more than a year and his 47 percent disapproval is a few points better than in September. The glimmer comes as independent voters, who helped him carry the state in 2008 but had since dropped off, have warmed to him again over the past year. [...]

Iowa's likely voters are somewhat more critical of the president than Iowans in general. More poll respondents who say they plan to definitely vote in 2012 disapprove of Obama's performance than approve, 49 percent to 46 percent. But among all Iowans, the percentage who are satisfied with Obama has inched slightly higher than those who are not for the first time since the Register's November 2009 poll.

In Iowa, Obama improved with political independents to 46 percent, up 4 points since September and 8 points since February.

He also made gains with Democrats and Republicans, but the gap between Democrats and Republicans who support him was 70 percentage points.

Selzer's September 2010 poll for the Register indicated that 45 percent of Iowans approved of Obama's performance, while 50 percent disapproved. In February 2010, Obama was at 46 approve/47 percent disapprove in Iowa.

Given some other findings of Selzer's latest poll, I'm surprised Obama's approval rating is as high as 48 percent. Only 32 percent of respondents said things in the U.S. are "headed in the right direction." About 58 percent of respondents said the nation is "on the wrong track."

Meanwhile, 43 percent of respondents said they approved of the job Obama is doing with the economy; 53 percent disapproved. Only 34 percent approved of the job Obama is doing on health care; 60 percent disapproved. Just 31 percent approved of the job Obama is doing on the deficit; 62 percent disapproved. Obama's strongest showing in the Selzer poll was on handling relations with foreign countries, where 54 approved and 38 percent disapproved. These numbers don't prove Iowans would prefer a Republican to handle the economy, health care or the deficit, but they suggest Obama goes into his re-election campaign with real vulnerabilities.

Both Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin saw some improvement in their approval ratings, according to the latest Selzer poll. Grassley was at 75 percent approval, up from 56 percent in September 2010. Harkin, whose ratings have always run a bit lower than Grassley's is at 55 percent approval in the latest poll. That's up from 48 percent last September.

Over the weekend, the Register reported that Iowans are "split 3 ways on same-sex marriage":

Asked whether they favored or opposed the recent Iowa Supreme Court decision that allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry in Iowa, 30 percent told the Iowa Poll they just don't care much one way or the other, while 37 percent opposed or strongly opposed the court ruling and 32 percent favored it or strongly favored it.

Poll results also revealed a double-digit ambivalence on two other questions related to same-sex marriage. Asked if the November vote not to retain three Iowa Supreme Court justices was good or bad for Iowa, 17 percent said they're not sure. And if there were a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, a quarter of those polled said they would not vote. [...]

Iowans remain fairly evenly divided on each end:

- Thirty-one percent of those polled said they strongly oppose the Iowa Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, while 26 percent strongly favor it.

- Forty-four percent say the judicial retention vote that ousted three Iowa Supreme Court justices was bad for the state; 39 percent said it was good.

- And 35 percent would vote in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, while 38 percent would vote against the measure.

Yet the middle ground - a bloc large enough to sway an election one way or the other - seems either genuinely conflicted or simply not interested, Selzer said.

The latest poll suggests Iowans' attitudes have been shifting toward support for marriage equality (though the Register didn't emphasize that angle). A September 2009 Selzer poll for the Register found that 26 percent of Iowans favored the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, 43 percent opposed it and 31 percent didn't care or were unsure. That poll found, "The percentage of Iowans who say they strongly oppose gay marriage (35 percent) is nearly double the percentage who say they strongly favor it (18 percent)." Now the percentage of Iowans who strongly oppose the Supreme Court's ruling (31 percent) is only a bit higher than the percentage who strongly favor it (26 percent).

The September 2009 Register poll also found that 41 percent of respondents would vote for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, 40 percent would vote against it. The rest either would not vote or were not sure. In addition, 92 percent of respondents said legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa had brought "no real change" to their lives.

In February 2010, the Register's Iowa poll found that 62 percent of respondents thought gay marriage "does not deserve the legislature's time." That majority presumably included people who don't care much about the issue as well as people who support same-sex marriage rights.

Incidentally, Public Policy Polling surveyed 1,077 Iowa registered voters in early January 2011 and found,

Iowa voters oppose gay marriage- but they also oppose impeaching the judges who made it legal in the state. Only 41% think same sex marriage should be legal, to 52% who think it should be illegal. But at the same time only 38% think the judges who ruled to legalize it should be impeached to 55% who oppose impeachment. There's a significant portion of voters in the state who do oppose same sex marriage but at the same time won't go so far as to say the judges should be removed from office.

The full polling memo (pdf file) has the crosstabs for those questions.

52% think same-sex marriage should not be legal, as it is now in the Hawkeye State, with 41% supporting the new status quo. It is mainly Republicans driving the animosity. 82% of them think same-sex marriage should be illegal, but two-thirds of Democrats are on the legal side, with independents splitting just 46-44 toward it being illegal.

On the impeachment issue, however, Republicans are not as gung-ho as some of their state legislators are. Still twice (60%) as many of them favor impeachment as oppose it, but that is far below the 82-10 margin of Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage itself. Overall, 55% of Iowa voters oppose impeachment, and only 38% support it. At 54-38 against, independents mirror the overall electorate, while Democrats' 79-16 margin against impeachment approaches Republicans' fervor against equal marriage rights.

"This is one of those classic issues where voters agree with Republicans but don't want the party to overplay its hand," said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. "They're on the same page with wanting same sex marriage to be illegal, but they think it's going too far to impeach the judges who made the ruling to legalize it."

Although PPP found a majority of Iowa voters oppose marriage equality, sentiment appears to be shifting in support of same-sex marriage rights. PPP hasn't asked this question before in an Iowa poll, to my knowledge, so we don't have trendlines, but a Hawkeye poll conducted in March 2009 found only 26 percent supported same-sex marriage rights. In that poll, another 28 percent of Iowans supported civil unions, while 37 percent opposed any legal recognition of same-sex relationships and 9 percent did not know.

On February 28 the Register published the Selzer poll's findings on former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Palin's favorability has slipped among Iowa Republicans who say they will vote in 2012 to 65 percent in the poll taken this month from 71 percent in November 2009.

During that time, Palin has produced two best-selling books, become a regular contributor to Fox News Channel and become the subject of a television program on TLC.

She has also visited Iowa four times, including three times to promote her books and once to headline a state Republican Party fundraiser. Each appearance has drawn Iowa and national news coverage.

In the Register's November 2009 poll, 27 percent of Republicans respondents viewed Palin very favorably, 44 percent viewed her mostly favorably, 18 percent viewed her mostly unfavorably and 5 percent viewed her very unfavorably. The latest poll showed 18 percent of likely Republican 2012 voters viewed Palin very favorably, 47 percent mostly favorably, 20 percent mostly unfavorably and 10 percent very unfavorably.

"The change in intensity is statistically significant," said Adam Geller, a Republican pollster and campaign consultant to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's 2009 campaign. "If you're Sarah Palin, you want those lines on the chart going up as the presidential contest gets closer, not going down."

Keep in mind that the subsample of Republican likely 2012 voters was just 189 people, giving Selzer's poll a margin of error of 7.1 percent for the Palin numbers. (The full Iowa poll of 800 respondents has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.) It's still a poor result for Palin, especially since not every Republicans who views her favorably would necessarily support her at a caucus.

Palin's Iowa numbers might not matter if she were very strong in some of the other early-voting states, but her ratings among Republicans are even weaker in New Hampshire. (In contrast, Mitt Romney leads several polls of New Hampshire Republicans, which could make up for his underwhelming numbers among Iowa Republicans.)

Getting back to Selzer's new poll, last week the Register reported that 47 percent of respondents in the new Iowa said they are "personally still feeling the effects of a recession" and 41 percent said they are not personally feeling a recession but are "seeing it affect others" around them. On February 26 the Register reported that 19 percent of respondents said their household income was lower than it had been a year earlier, 55 percent said their household income was about the same, while only 23 percent said their household income was higher than it had been a year earlier.

The lingering recession - layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts - pushed the state's per capita wages down 3.9 percent in 2009 over 2008, when pay was adjusted for inflation, according to income data analyzed by Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University economist.

It's the largest percentage decline in paychecks and other earnings since 1983, when real wages fell 8.1 percent and the state grappled with another monster recession, the farm crisis.

"It's going to take awhile to climb out of the deep pit we've fallen into," Swenson said.

The Register also asked Iowans about some of the controversial issues facing state legislators this session. Respondents seemed receptive to the idea that the universal voluntary preschool program for 4-year-olds is too expensive:

In the new Iowa Poll, conducted Feb. 13-16, 57 percent of participants said Iowa can't afford preschool for all 4-year-old children right now.

And 51 percent of poll participants want only needy families to receive state support. [...]

In the poll, 70 percent of Iowans agreed that public preschool puts children from low-income and middle-class families, as well as children from rural Iowa and cities, on equal footing as they head into kindergarten.

I wonder whether the question wording on preschool may have tipped respondents toward Governor Branstad's position (the state can't afford to continue the current program). The survey asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "Iowa cannot afford to pay for preschool for all children while we have other budget challenges." That suggests cuts are required to balance Iowa's budget. I agree with State Senator Matt McCoy's comments in the Register write-up on this part of the Iowa poll:

McCoy said state budget concerns have been overblown.

Iowa is expected to have more than $900 million in budget surpluses and emergency accounts when the budget year ends July 1. Branstad wants to cut corporate income taxes by half. He also has proposed trimming commercial property tax by 40 percent in the next four years.

"We can't do corporate income tax breaks that the governor wants to do and do preschool," McCoy said. "But we can do preschool and allowable growth for schools and about $180 million worth of tax cuts that the Senate passed and still stay within our budget as a state. The question is, where are our priorities?"

Selzer's new poll asked about other ways to close Iowa's budget gap. Here are the notable findings:

Amid a national tug-of-war over budget expenses and union rights, The Des Moines Register's new Iowa Poll shows 61 percent of Iowa adults favor workers chipping in that much, while 35 percent oppose such a requirement.

"Even about half of those living in union households, 49 percent, agree with this," said J. Ann Selzer, the Iowa Poll's director.

Among five revenue or spending proposals polled - including the gas tax, business tax credits, passenger train service and anti-smoking programs - extracting more health care contributions from public workers is the one most Iowans favor. [...]

Passenger trains: On the topic of passenger rail, the poll shows Iowans are interested in the state committing financial support to establish service between Iowa City and Chicago, with 56 percent in favor and 39 percent against.

"They're saying, 'We want trains,'" Selzer said.[...]

The Iowa Poll shows that 60 percent of young Iowans are on board with committing state financial support for the train.

Iowans who said they are Democrats want it most (73 percent are in favor), followed by independents (54 percent), the poll shows. A majority of Republicans (52 percent) don't want the state to spend on passenger rail improvements.

Among women, 62 percent favor state spending for train service while men are more divided (50 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed).

Anti-smoking: Iowans also like a proposal by Republicans in the Legislature to eliminate spending on anti-smoking advertisements and programs to help people quit smoking. Fifty-three percent favor this; 44 percent oppose it.

The poll shows a majority of Iowans who identified themselves as a liberal are against halting state funding for the smoking cessation programs.

Democrats in the Legislature want to continue spending for Quitline, a state-sponsored telephone-counseling program that uses trained staff to help smokers kick the habit, and Just Eliminate Lies, a youth-oriented program known for its stark anti-tobacco ads.

Fuel taxes: When it comes to taxes on gasoline, a solid majority of Iowans have no desire to raise the tax 5 to 10 cents a gallon in order to repair more roads and bridges. Seventy percent oppose a tax increase; 29 percent favor it. [...]

Business tax credits: The poll shows 26 percent of Iowans would like to eliminate all tax credits to businesses, but 68 percent oppose that.

The state provides tax credits for research and development, high-quality job creation, capital investment, and other activities. In 2010 for the research activities credit alone, the state provided about $45 million in tax credits to 160 companies. Of those companies, 133 corporations paid no taxes and instead received checks of about $43 million.

Poll results don't necessarily sway Iowa legislators. The I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program passed the state House and Senate in April 2009 despite a March 2009 Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register, in which 71 percent of respondents agreed that Iowa should "pay for the projects as it has the money over time," while only 24 percent supported "Governor Chet Culver's plan to borrow money to speed up public works projects."

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