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Polls Show Views On Government Are Highly Partisan


A sizable portion of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year will go toward government spending in transportation, health care, the environment and other areas.

In the wake of these massive expenditures and the current economic downturn, Americans are once again engaged in the longstanding debate over the size and role of government. Have the recession and financial tough times caused Americans to embrace a larger government that provides more services to its people, or are there fears about increased government spending, as reflected in the views of some of the tea party attendees last week?

According to CBS News Polls, Americans' views on the size of government they prefer have not changed much recently. Opinion on this issue is relatively stable, and has been for many years. It is however, marked by a wide partisan divide.

In early April, a CBS News/New York Times Poll found that 48 percent of Americans said they would choose a "smaller government providing fewer services," while slightly fewer, 41 percent, said they would opt for a "bigger government providing more services."

With just a few exceptions, views on the size of government haven't fluctuated dramatically over the past twenty years. The percentage choosing smaller government reached a high of 61 percent in February 1996. The low was 41 percent, in January 1989; at that time, more people – 48 percent -- preferred larger government.


Not surprisingly, partisan affiliation is strongly correlated with opinions about government's size. In the April 2009 poll, 72 percent of Republicans prefer smaller government with fewer services. Over half of all Democrats (59 percent) favor a bigger government that is responsible for more services. Independents also prefer smaller government, but not to the extent that Republicans do.

Election day exit polls have also tracked voters' views about the size of government. In November 2004, 46 percent thought the government should "do more to solve problems," while about as many, 49 percent, felt the government was "doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals." In 2000 and 1996, more than half of voters believed the government was doing too much.

But the 2008 election marked a shift in attitudes. Fifty one percent of voters in November 2008 felt the government should do more to solve problems, up by five percentage points compared to 2004. Forty three percent thought the government was already doing too much, down from 49 percent in 2004.

The partisan divide on size of government is seen in exit polls as well. The 2008 exit poll showed that 72 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama wanted the government to do more. John McCain's voters held the opposite view – 69 percent thought the government was doing too much.


Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.