NEW HAVEN -- It is expected as a fait accompli that President Obama, both in his upcoming State of the Union address and during his next year or two in office, will focus his energy and efforts on deficit reduction.
The administration has already announced a forthcoming freeze in both discretionary spending and federal worker salaries. And with a more heavily GOP-tilted legislative branch in the offing, this topic appears to be the best (and perhaps only) hope for a governing consensus.
There's a sound argument to be made on economic grounds that this makes little sense. But increasingly it has become clear that there is scant political upside as well, at least for Democrats. A CNN poll released earlier this week found that while a wide swath of respondents thought spending was a problem, only one in five believed "that deficit reduction should be the main goal of government today." That number mirrors other polling data that sets deficit reduction as a second-tier priority, as far as the public is concerned.
A more telling metric, however, may be that when actual congressional candidates were polling their own districts during the height of the 2010 elections they neither considered deficit reduction a major issue nor were handed data that suggested it was.
The Huffington Post reached out to half-a-dozen major Democratic pollsters to ask them what topics not only resonated most with the voting public but occupied their clients the most as the election approached. The deficit wasn't on the list.
"Deficit reduction was more a DC-driven narrative during the elections," said John Anzalone, a partner at Anzalone Liszt Research. "I think it will be a more salient issue in the next twelve months, but the reality is that if the deficit is the most important issue for a voter there is not much of a chance a Democratic candidate for Congress is going to get them anyway."
"Deficit reduction is very inside the beltway," said Tom Jensen, the Director of Public Policy Polling. "It was not something many voters spend a lot of time thinking about."
What was? Depending on the pollster and region, the issues of concern -- for politicians paying for the polls, and for voters responding to them -- varied. According to Jensen, who did a lot of polling in the South, the topic "that worried Democratic politicians the most" was the president's health care package.
"I doubt there's any individual issue that sunk more people than that. Our North Carolina delegation is a pretty clear example of that," said Jensen. "We have four somewhat vulnerable Democratic Congressional districts. [Rep Heath] Shuler and [Mike] McIntyre's would lean Republican in an open seat situation, [Bob] Etheridge and [Larry] Kissell's would both be toss ups. Etheridge voted for health care, the rest voted against it. Etheridge lost, the rest won by about 10 points. Folks saw what a hot button issue that was going to be pretty early on and polled it."
This is far from true across the board. While Jensen saw health care reform as the issue most burdening the minds of Democratic pols, other pollsters were tasked with crunching numbers on outsourcing.
"The one issue I think every Democratic pollster found to be very strong was outsourcing -- anything related to jobs going overseas got a strong response," said Guy Molyneux of Hart Research.
"Obviously, nearly all campaign polling done this year had an economic focus in one way or another," said Nick Gourevitch, vice president of Global Strategy Group. "At the top of that list was jobs -- especially on the Democratic side -- where a lot of the polling was on outsourcing and preventing the loss of American jobs."
That the loss of jobs took political precedence over the levels of government spending seems fairly logical. Voters are more emotionally concerned about their personal employment than the size of the deficit -- though it should be noted that the bailout of the banks and automobile industry were polled heavily by candidates, according to several pollsters.
And yet, as can often be the case, circumstances in Washington D.C. aren't necessarily reflective of the impressions being offered outside the beltway. While the president has offered several gestures of support for deficit reduction, the one recent effort to curb the outsourcing of jobs -- by realigning tax incentives -- was defeated in the Senate with nary a whimper.