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Tension Between the Rich and the Poor Likely to Impact the 2012 Election
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,

Last fall, as President Obama sought to raise taxes on wealthy Americans in order to reduce the nation’s deficit, many of his critics accused him of engaging in class warfare. A new survey from Pew Social & Demographic Trends signals that politicians will have to deal with rapidly increasing socioeconomic tension. According to the survey, 3-in-10 Americans say that there are “very strong conflicts” between the rich and the poor, twice the number who held this view only two years ago. The issue of class conflict will undoubtedly feature prominently in the 2012 campaign; Obama has started speaking more frankly about the problem of income inequality, while Mitt Romney, his likely rival, has responded by castigating Obama for promoting the “politics of envy.”

Majorities of nearly all major demographic groups believe that there is significantly more class conflict today than there was two years ago. Traditionally strong Democratic constituencies—Millennials, women, and African Americans—are more likely to say that there are strong tensions between the rich and the poor than other groups.

When asked how the rich reached their current status, Americans are nearly evenly divided: 46% say that wealthy people know the right people or were born into wealthy families, while 43% said that rich Americans amassed their wealth through their own hard work, ambition or education. This echoes PRRI’s November findings on the American Dream, where 44% of Americans said that the American Dream (the notion that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead) still holds true, while 48% said that it once held true, but not anymore.

Class tensions could prove particularly relevant during the general election cycle, when Democrats and Republicans alike will need to direct their attention to white working-class voters hit hard by the recession. Rick Santorum made efforts to reach out to these voters in New Hampshire (with little to show for it), but as Dr. Robert P. Jones pointed out in an article for the Huffington Post last week, “Democrats may have a considerable advantage over Republicans because their values are more aligned with the white working class on some of the most salient economic issues: income and wealth inequality.”

Recent surveys from PRRI show that Americans are aware of increasing income inequality – and that they want the government to do something about it.

  • Nearly 8-in-10 Americans (79%) say that the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten larger over the past 20 years.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of Americans say that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
  • Almost 7-in-10 (68%) of Americans agree that in order to reduce the deficit, it’s fair to ask wealthier Americans to pay a greater percentage in taxes than the middle class or those less well off.

If economic inequality does play a prominent role in the 2012 campaign, it may prove to be a difficult issue for Romney to handle. Political science professor John Sides notes that, according to a survey he conducted recently, “for Americans, Romney’s personal wealth is more intimately tied to the perception that he cares about the wealthy—and this in turn implies that he cares less for the middle class.”