TWO PARTIES, TWO APPROACHES TO COMPROMISE…. The asymmetry is fascinating, but more importantly, it influences the outcome of the larger debate.

As negotiators in Congress squabble over the size and scope of spending cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year, Democrats and Republicans outside the Beltway differ dramatically in how they want their leaders to handle the budget stalemate, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

In a contrast that illustrates why the standoff has pushed the federal government to the verge of a shutdown, the poll finds an overwhelming majority of Democrats wanting the leaders of their party in Congress to compromise, and a majority of Republicans wanting theirs to stand firm.

The results weren’t especially close. The vast majority (68%) of self-identified Democrats expect their party’s leaders to make compromises to gain consensus as part of the budget fight. A clear majority (56%) of self-identified Republicans want their party’s leaders to stick to their guns and avoid compromise, not matter the consequences.

Two-thirds of independents (66%), not surprisingly, are more in line with rank-and-file Dems, expecting both parties to compromise.

GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who helped conduct the poll for NBC, said, “There is no question that has to drive the leadership in terms of being responsive.”

Agreed. In fact, this is the second national poll this week to show this kind of breakdown. A Pew Research Center survey found most Democratic and independent voters want policymakers they agree with to cooperate and make concessions, while most Republican voters want their like-minded officials to stand on principle.

This may speak to different personality styles between partisans — Dems are comfortable with compromise, Republicans aren’t — but that’s only part of the significance here.

The more important point is that GOP officials read these polls and act accordingly. The clear majority of the American mainstream wants Republicans to be responsible and pragmatic, striking deals to get things done. But the congressional GOP doesn’t care what the American mainstream wants; it cares what the base wants. And in this case, the base wants a fight, not a deal.

The danger here is that deliberately ignoring the mainstream to kowtow to extremists should carry electoral consequences, but Republican officials are fairly comfortable taking the risk — they can be irresponsible, blame Dems, wait for the media to blame “both sides” equally, and count on the party, the Koch Brothers, and Karl Rove to run a bunch of attack ads that will help them stay in office in anyway.

Update: And three makes a trend — new Gallup data shows similar results to NBC and Pew on party voters and their willingness to support compromise.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.