The limits of public opinion

THE LIMITS OF PUBLIC OPINION…. A Gallup poll released Friday asked a question that seems pertinent to the fiscal fight in Washington. The question read:

“As you may know, Congress can reduce the federal budget deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes, or a combination of the two. Ideally, how would you prefer to see Congress attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit — only with spending cuts, mostly with spending cuts, equally with spending cuts and tax increases, mostly with tax increases, or only with tax increases?”

The results were all over the place, and varied widely by party affiliation. Overall, a 37% plurality supports the balanced approach, 28% wants “mostly” spending cuts, and 20% wants “only” spending cuts. Only 9% wants “mostly” tax increases, while 2% backs “only” tax increases.

Matt Yglesias noted in response, “Of course this raises the question of whether people really mean this, which I doubt.”

So do I. In fact, it’s pretty safe to assume folks don’t mean this at all, and the evidence is overwhelming that asking the question this way — i.e., asking whether Americans want to reduce the deficit through “spending cuts” — is almost certain to generate results that tell us nothing.

It’s one of the most consistent truths in all of politics: Americans, when asked, love the idea of spending cuts in the abstract. Those same Americans, when pressed, hate the idea of spending cuts in specific.

We know this in part because Gallup has told us. Just a few months ago, the pollster found most of the country balked at the notion of cuts to education, Social Security, Medicare, programs for the poor, national defense, homeland security, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences. A month later, a Bloomberg poll found that most Americans don’t want to see budget cuts to education, community renewal programs, medical and scientific research, or public television and public radio. A month ago today, a CNN poll showed most Americans want to see spending go up, not down, in many key areas of the budget.

What cuts are popular? Foreign aid is a perennial favorite, but other than that, practically no cuts enjoy public support.

Polls that simply ask about “spending cuts” offer results with no meaningful value. Something to keep in mind.