Polls Undercut Budget Demagogues’ Message

Posted March 14, 2011 at 5:45pm

As anyone who spends any time trying to figure it out will tell you, the federal budget is exceedingly complex and difficult. Combine that with the increasingly emotional debate that surrounds federal deficits, the national debt, taxes and spending, and it’s not hard to understand how and why budget discussions almost always seem to involve misstatements, hyperbole and a word I use with increasing frequency these days when characterizing the budget debate — demagoguery.

I raise this because current polls continue to show that there’s a substantial disconnect between what’s being said about what people want on the budget and actual public opinion. Indeed, the latest polling on budget-related issues shows that the purported lessons of the 2010 midterm elections are much closer to wishful thinking than an accurate assessment of existing public sentiment. 

For example, House Republicans have insisted that voters gave them a mandate in November to cut Medicare spending, but a poll released last week by Bloomberg showed that 76 percent of respondents opposed such reductions. Education also appears to be on the chopping block in the House, but 77 percent of respondents said education cuts were not justified. As usual, reductions to foreign aid received the most support — 72 percent — but that part of the budget has drawn little attention.

In addition, the mantra we’re hearing that revenue increases are unacceptable is completely contradicted by the 59 percent of respondents who supported repealing a cornerstone of the tax deal put in place in December — an extension of tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 per year.

A Harris poll released last week showed indisputably similar results: An overwhelming percentage of Americans don’t support spending cuts in the major parts of the federal budget. Medicare, Social Security, national parks, crime fighting and defense were all supported by more than 80 percent of those who responded. More than 70 percent were against cuts to federal aid to public schools, unemployment benefits, environmental protection, Medicaid, and the CIA and other intelligence services. Again, foreign aid was the only area of federal spending that a majority supported cutting.

What’s most impressive about the Harris results is that not much has changed since that organization began to measure public attitudes about these programs five or so years ago: Support for some is just a little lower, for others it’s a little higher. Two areas of the budget that seem to have the biggest bull’s-eyes on their backs today, Medicare and education, are both a very significant 10 points more popular now than they were in 2005.

The most instructive of the recent budget-related polls may well be from South Dakota. The firm RBI Strategies and Research surveyed 400 people in the state for the Dakota Poll, which was released about a month ago. The poll showed more or less the same results as the Bloomberg and Harris polls mentioned above: overwhelming opposition to cutting Medicare, Social Security, education and military spending. What makes this poll so important, however, is that it surveyed registered voters who identified themselves as tea party supporters. As the analysis provided by the Dakota Poll stated, the results show that this group appears to be “far more pragmatic and less anti-government or anti-tax” than we are being told and its leaders are claiming.

These three polls and many others show consistently high levels of support for what the federal government does and should make it clear that any “unambiguous message” on spending cuts derived from the 2010 election results is an overstatement or misstatement. Even if that were the real message four months ago on Election Day — and that’s hard to fathom based on the consistent public opinion research — the most recent polls show that federal activities and services are currently incredibly popular. And while some lawmakers insist that revenue increases would only be approved over a politically dead body or two, the polls show such increases may well be far more acceptable to the public than we’re being told.

It’s possible, of course, that those who vote on Election Day are different, and perhaps dramatically different, than the cross section of voters who have been surveyed in national polls. The Dakota Poll results seem to indicate that’s not the case, however. As a result, reliance on what some insist was THE message of Election Day 2010 is either an inadvertent or intentional misreading of voter sentiment. The first would be merely bad judgment; the second would require me to use that word — demagoguery — that has become an increasingly indispensable way to characterize the budget debate.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”