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Very Few Surprises In Taxation Surveys Through the Years

A review of public opinion on taxes by the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a resident fellow, reveals several general trends on taxation. The review, available at, shows the following: [IMGCAP(1)]

• In 65 years of surveys, there has been no instance in which people have said their federal income taxes are too low. Solid majorities almost always say they are too high. One explanation is that people don’t feel they get good value for their tax dollars. People think about 50 cents of every tax dollar collected by Washington is wasted.

• Politicians have a lot to lose by raising taxes, but little to gain by promising to cut them. Our review of the public’s views of politicians’ tax promises over the past 30 years shows that these promises have little credibility nationally.

• In national polls, the GOP may have an advantage on “holding taxes down” or “keeping them down,” but not on “cutting” them.

• On taxes, the GOP has a problem as being seen as the party favoring the rich. The Democrats have a problem as the party too willing to raise taxes.

• Voters who say taxation is the most important issue to them (from 14 percent to 17 percent of the electorate in presidential contests since 1984) vote in overwhelming numbers for Republican candidates.

• People appear to pay closer attention to the levels of state and local taxes than they do to federal income taxes. Although they were few in number, the polls we reviewed suggest that tax dissatisfaction is rising at the state level again. The Initiative and Referendum Institute examined voter behavior on 130 tax initiatives between 1978 and 1999. Forty-one of the 86 they characterized as “anti-tax” passed. Ten of those they characterized as pro-tax did. The pass rate for anti-tax measures has gone up from 43 percent from 1978 to 1989 to 53 percent between 1990 and 1999. From 1996 to 1999, it was even higher: 67 percent.

• Although the Internal Revenue Service’s ratings have improved a little since 1997, people would prefer a root canal to an IRS audit.

Just Wars? In mid-March, 19 percent of people surveyed told Pew Research Center interviewers that war is never morally justified, but 77 percent said that it sometimes is. Religious denomination had little effect on views of the morality of war.

Celebrities and War. When Gallup, CNN and USA Today asked about celebrities’ political activity, about 85 percent of those surveyed said there were no celebrities who would make them more likely to favor or oppose a position. Just 10 percent said there were celebrities who could change their positions.

When asked how effective celebrities are in influencing the views of the president and other government officials, 64 percent said not too effective or not effective at all. Only 3 percent said they were very effective.

Twenty-one percent said there were celebrities who they personally felt were anti-American. When asked to name them, Jane Fonda and Sean Penn topped the list, each cited by 3 percent. Seventy-three percent said there were not anti-American celebrities.

Majorities in the late-February poll had favorable opinions of Arnold Schwarzenegger (72 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable); George Clooney (61-19); Charlton Heston (57-33); Martin Sheen (55-20); and Barbra Streisand (52-33). Forty-five percent had a favorable opinion of Alex Baldwin (26 percent unfavorable) and 43 percent of Susan Sarandon (22 percent unfavorable). Penn had a net negative, 35 percent to 38 percent.

In late February, 24 percent told Fox News and Opinion Dynamics pollsters that they were interested in what Hollywood celebrities thought about political issues, but 68 percent said they would prefer celebrities keep their opinions to themselves.

In the Pew Research Center’s March 13-16 poll, 53 percent said their friends and family members had a great deal of influence on their views about possible military action in Iraq, followed by political commentators (43 percent), Republican political leaders (40 percent), Democratic leaders (35 percent) and religious leaders (33 percent). Hollywood celebrities were a distant last at 7 percent. Seventy-seven percent said they had no influence at all on their opinions about possible military action.

Women in America. When Gallup asked in mid-January about satisfaction with 21 different issues, 83 percent, the top response, said they were satisfied with the nation’s military strength and preparedness. Almost as many, 75 percent, pronounced themselves satisfied with the position of women in the nation. Men’s and women’s views were similar on women’s status.

At the bottom of the list were the nation’s efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness (30 percent satisfied) and the level of immigration (27 percent).

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