WASHINGTON — Politicians tasked with negotiating a deal next month to avoid the "fiscal cliff" can be thankful that their talks are taking place immediately after a clarifying national election that laid out exactly how the public wants Washington to deal with debt and deficits.
In one of the most enduring features of Washington's two years of gridlock over fiscal issues, a flood of pre- and post-election polling shows little change in the public's divided — and at times conflicted — attitudes about what should be done to avert the $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to start taking effect in January.
The surveys form a confusing backdrop that makes deal-making difficult and allows partisans on both sides to claim support for their positions.
In general, many surveys show that people think the government is too big. But they often oppose cuts to the programs that will be the largest drivers of the debt in future years.
They say they want politicians to balance the budget — but also want more done to create jobs, which might involve new spending.
"Everybody has this view that we want you to rescue us from the fiscal cliff. But when you propose specific items, they say, 'We didn't think you meant that,' " said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, who hopes to vote for a big deficit-reduction deal that includes both spending cuts and tax increases before retiring from Congress in January.
On one thing, public opinion seems pretty clear: People favor asking the wealthy to pay more in taxes, a major position staked out by President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies.
That finding has been borne out in survey after survey and in the national exit poll taken on Election Day, which showed that 60 percent of voters favored raising taxes. Forty-seven percent of them said taxes should go up for those making at least $250,000 a year. And 13 percent said everyone should pay more.
That finding was true across population groups: 65 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 supported raising taxes either on everyone or on the wealthy. So did 54 percent of those over age 65.
"The idea that you can do this and not raise any more revenue, that was set aside by the election. That's a breakthrough," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which favors a mixture of spending cuts and increased revenue to bring down the debt.
That shift helps explain a softening of the longtime Republican opposition to new tax dollars as part of a deal.
But beyond the tax issue, the public has been far less clear on what, if anything, should happen to deal with deficits.
A poll conducted in August by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, found that 37 percent of Americans said the federal budget deficit was one of the top two economic issues that worried them the most.
But they were evenly split — 48 to 48 percent — on whether it was more important right now for the government to spend money to create jobs or for the government to avoid a big increase in the federal deficit.
Since the election, a flood of polling released by interest groups shows public support for differing approaches toward the deficit.
On Tuesday, Fix the Debt, a new bipartisan campaign led by business leaders and former policy makers, released a poll taken just before the election in which 72 percent of likely voters said the deficit and federal debt would be extremely or very important in deciding their vote. More than 90 percent of likely voters agreed that a bipartisan agreement, with "everything on the table," was needed to address the problem.
But three major unions put out a survey that appeared to show exactly the opposite: People would prefer that politicians focus on job creation over cutting deficits, and they oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, education, and police and fire protection to address deficits.
"The American people are not stupid, and we think they spoke loudly and clearly," insisted Chuck Loveless, federal government director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The differences in those polls could stem from asking the questions differently. But they will drive the public campaigns used to pressure lawmakers in the coming weeks.
Fix the Debt has posted ads in bus shelters, online and in print to urge a big deal on debt. The union coalition, which also includes the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, announced Tuesday that they will air a mix of radio and television ads this weekend in six states to oppose entitlement cuts.
Bixby and others who want a debt-cutting deal in Washington insist that what the polls really show is that people think it should be up to the lawmakers they've elected to come up with a fair, long-term solution.
"They're not policy wonks. They just want politicians to make it better," he said.
In Florida this week, tuna boat captain Carl Roby, 56, prepared to head out to sea and leave lawmakers behind to debate the fiscal cliff.
The debt, he said, troubles him. "If I owed more than I made, they'd kick me out of my house and take everything away from me," he said.
But he said he has no good solution. That, he said, is what lawmakers are elected to figure out.
"You get a lot of smart people together and they come up with something they all agree on, it's probably a good idea, right?" Roby said.