WASHINGTON — As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney look to the November election, a new poll from the Pew Research Center finds a sizable share of the public is unsure which side the presidential candidates’ political parties take on some of the country’s most divisive issues, including the size of the federal government, gay rights and abortion.
That finding could give Obama, the Democrat, and Romney, the Republican, considerable leeway in shaping public perceptions of where the two major parties stand on the issues. Although 71 percent knew the Republican Party was generally the more conservative one, fewer were able to connect each party with its position on specific issues.
Less than 7 in 10 in the poll knew which party favored expanding gay rights, restricting abortion, establishing a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants or allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
About half identified Republicans as the party that favors a smaller federal government, a major talking point among GOP leaders and on the presidential campaign trail. More, or 67 percent, identified Democrats as the party seeking to raise taxes on higher income people to reduce the federal budget deficit, an issue Obama has frequently addressed in recent public appearances.
Political independents, who may not follow politics as closely as self-identified partisans, were more apt to be familiar with Obama’s push to raise taxes on higher-income Americans (65 percent) than with the GOP’s efforts to trim the size of government (51 percent). The poll suggests Democrats may doubt that Republicans really want to reduce the size of government more than their own party, as just 46 percent of Democrats said the GOP was the party trying to trim its size.
The public broadly knew the party affiliations of Ronald Reagan (85 percent knew he was a Republican) and Bill Clinton (84 percent cited his Democratic affiliation), but were less able to name the party affiliations of Franklin D. Roosevelt (58 percent identified him as a Democrat) and Abraham Lincoln (55 percent said he was a Republican).
On the parties’ House leaders, 61 percent said Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat and 55 percent correctly placed John Boehner in the Republican Party. Self-identified Democrats were less apt than Republicans to identify Pelosi as a Democrat (59 percent of Democrats said so, compared with 75 percent of Republicans), while about 6 in 10 in each party pegged Boehner’s party affiliation correctly.
The poll was conducted March 29 through April 1, and included landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.