Many Americans say they want politicians to compromise. But maybe they don’t.

Jan 16 '19
President Trump, accompanied by Vice President Pence, obscured at left, meets in the Oval Office in 2017 with congressional leaders including, clockwise from center, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The lengthy government shutdown seems likely to end only when one or both political parties is willing to compromise. But the question Democratic and Republican lawmakers have to confront is how to sell that compromise to their supporters. If that compromise involves immigration policy, it’s clear why that’s hard: Democratic and Republican voters are far apart on those issues.

But here’s a further complication: The people most likely to say they want politicians to compromise are least likely to stomach whatever that compromise is. Here’s how that plays out with immigration in particular, based on data from the newest GW Politics Poll.

Many Americans say they want compromise.

This poll asked people which statement they most agreed with: “I like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with” or “I like elected officials who stick to their positions.” Respondents were almost evenly split: 51 percent favored compromise, and 49 percent favored sticking to positions. The last time this question was asked, in a March 2018 Pew Research Center survey, opinion slightly favored sticking to positions (53 percent vs. 44 percent). So maybe there has been a small shift since then.

Compromise is far more popular among Democrats.

A striking thing in that Pew survey was the sharp decline in the percentage of Democrats who favored compromise, even though they had long been more supportive of compromise than had Republicans. This seemed like a predictable reaction to a unified Republican government, when compromise in the abstract would mean compromise with a president and congressional majority that most Democrats strongly oppose.

However, we found evidence of the same old partisan gap: 66 percent of Democrats favored compromise, compared with 36 percent of Republicans who did. This could reflect news surrounding the Democratic takeover of the House: To Democrats, compromise may sound a lot better now that they have some negotiating power.

This partisan divide, combined with evidence of a stable partisan gap in a similar survey question, suggests that Trump and Republican leaders could confront a larger backlash from any compromise that ends the shutdown.

But do people who want compromise really want it?

Here’s the challenge, however. Let’s subdivide Democrats and Republicans based on how much attention they pay to politics. (Based on previous research, this is measured with questions about people’s knowledge of political facts — like the length of a senator’s term.) What would you expect: Are people who pay more attention to politics more or less supportive of compromise?

Here’s the graph:

Among both parties, but especially Democrats, politically engaged people are more supportive of compromise. That bodes well for compromise, since it’s politically engaged people who are most likely to vote and communicate with their representatives in Congress. (This pattern squares with findings from Pew: More-educated people are also more supportive of compromise.)

But politically engaged people may have policy commitments that make it harder for them to agree to any specific compromise, even if they support “compromise” in the abstract. Immigration is a good example.

Take all the immigration policy questions we asked in this survey (see here) and average them into an overall index of immigration attitudes. Ideally, what you’d want is for politically engaged Democrats to be less liberal on immigration and politically engaged Republicans to be less conservative. Then you’d have the potential makings of a compromise.

Instead, it’s basically the opposite:

Politically engaged Republicans aren’t any different from their less-engaged counterparts. Politically engaged Democrats are more liberal than Democrats who pay less attention to politics. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Lots of research shows that partisan polarization is higher among people who follow politics more closely. Nevertheless, the challenge remains: persuading people who say they like compromise to accept an actual compromise that’s in fact far away from their beliefs.

For this reason, I place a lot less stock in whether people say they want politicians to compromise. The bigger question — and the one that has to be answered to open the government — is what specific compromise they’re willing to tolerate.