Obama vs. Romney on 'fiscal cliff': May the bolder man win, polls say

Voters want Romney and Obama to take on the tough issues concerning the nation's fiscal future, especially the $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts known as the 'fiscal cliff.'

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (l.) and President Obama talk after the first presidential debate in Denver in this Oct. 3 file photo.

The key to winning the White House may run through the issue too fearsome for Washington to tackle: the looming fiscal cliff.

Polling and analysis released Monday by the left (Democratic pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner), right (Republican pollsters Resurgent Republic) and center (Center Forward, a moderate Democratic group) tells a tale of an American public thoroughly upset with Washington’s handling of the weighty fiscal issues set to slam the economy come Jan. 1. But if voters aren’t totally versed on the specifics of the “fiscal cliff,” they’re willing to throw their political support behind the presidential candidate who provides a bolder, more compelling vision for how to deal with the nation’s future.

The Center Forward poll, conducted by the bipartisan public affairs group Purple Strategies, found that slightly more than half of voters (and more than 6 in 10 in swing states) are concerned about the fiscal cliff.

The cliff is Washington shorthand for some $600 billion in higher taxes and lower government spending that will set in after the first of the year and that government economists believe could be enough to push the American economy back into a recession.

The poll, which surveyed 1,000 likely voters and had an overall margin of error of 3.1 percent, found that voters were even more unanimous on two fronts. First, nearly 8 in 10 disapproved of how Congress has handled the fiscal cliff thus far.

But second, almost 3 in 4 voters say the two presidential campaigns have done too little to inform them of their plans for dealing with the cliff. (Voters aren’t getting any more help on the congressional level, with 82 percent saying they aren’t getting sufficient info on the fiscal cliff from their candidates for Congress.) 

“If candidates aren’t going to talk about it, either in their debates or in their advertising, it’s hard to bring the American people to know a lot about what the fiscal problems are confronting the country,” said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, at a press briefing on Monday.

But the candidate that does address the issues could reap large political rewards, say Democratic pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, in a research memo.

Part of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s post-debate polling bounce wasn't about his rhetorical style – it was about his willingness to talk decisively about the nation’s economic future, the pollsters write.

“Mitt Romney is strongest when he uses future-oriented economic messages to talk about the policy choices,” they say, noting that 3 in 4 voters agree with Romney’s five-point economic plan of job creation, energy independence, improved education, and lower deficits and taxes.

“This message also has strong intensity of support – half (50 percent) of voters strongly agree with this message. Had Romney battled for the future from the outset, he might be in a closer contest,” the pollsters continue.

During the debate, dial tests conducted by the group saw independents and unmarried women – two key parts of President Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 – tune out when the president discussed economic progress of the last four years. 

On the other hand, “Obama won most support when he said what he would do to make the economy better in the years ahead." Still, “both Romney and Ryan spent much more time on that future and sounded like they had a real plan to make the economy better,” the pollsters’ memo reads.

Resurgent Republic, the conservative polling group, found similar advice to the candidates via focus group of undecided voters in Milwaukee, Wisc.

"When asked to offer one final piece of advice to both campaigns, the consensus in these groups was [that] both candidates need to be specific about what they will do moving forward. Mitt Romney’s debate performance laid the groundwork for the specifics these voters desire to hear, and he will be in good standing by continuing to talk about the actions he’d take as president. If President Obama is to win back these voters, he’ll need a campaign strategy beyond playing prevent defense and trying to run out the clock," according to a memo by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and pollster Glen Bolger.

And if either candidate is going to seize on the opportunity, they’re likely to gain more traction with bolder, more sweeping proposals. By wide margins, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found voters seeking big changes over incremental adjustments.

“It is clear from this new national poll about presidential narratives that voters do not want a continuation; they want change. Indeed, they want bold change – and they are hoping that is what the president has in store,” the pollsters write.

What voters’ expectations are once either man takes the oath of office come January, however, is a different story.

While 94 percent of voters in the Center Forward poll say the nation will face severe consequences if the two parties don’t work together in Washington to solve the fiscal cliff and 88 percent agree that a solution can only be solved with bipartisan cooperation, what exactly constitutes "cooperation" may not be cooperation at all.

“I want a bipartisan approach,” said Doug Usher, director of Purple Insights, Purple Strategies, explaining the thorny nature of voters asking for bipartisan solutions, "but I want a bipartisan approach that does what I want it to do.”

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