Why the Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Posted February 7, 2011 at 5:51pm

I’m always more than a little suspicious, if not outright skeptical, when I hear an elected official claim to know what the “American people” want Congress and the White House to do about the federal budget.

It’s not just that most such statements always seem to validate that person’s proposal of the moment; it’s that what he’s saying never seems to be based on anything more than a very ad hoc interpretation of the political tea leaves. In reality, most aspects of American politics are far too multifaceted and nuanced to be addressed with a simple and easy-to-describe policy change on a single issue.

This is especially true when it comes to the federal budget. Poll after poll shows that, when you look at the full picture, Americans aren’t at all definitive about what to do about the issue or how to do it. In fact, the most consistent finding of statistically significant, nonpartisan national polls about the federal budget is that Americans are remarkably inconsistent: They want the deficit reduced or eliminated but, with very limited exceptions, they don’t want to cut spending or increase taxes to do it.

For example, an Ipsos/Reuters poll conducted last month showed that a whopping 71 percent of respondents said the federal debt ceiling shouldn’t be increased. That seemingly incontrovertible result, which flew around the blogosphere, was actually at odds with another finding: The same poll uncovered just as little enthusiasm for cutting most types of spending. While cuts to foreign aid were very popular (73 percent supported them) and about half the respondents said the Pentagon budget should be reduced, very few people wanted Social Security or Medicare touched and fewer than 25 percent favored reductions in education.

If you factor in the national debt, which can’t be cut by legislative fiat or voter preference, and leave untouched the spending that the respondents wanted to preserve, the remaining spending that could be sacrificed isn’t enough to eliminate the deficit and to stop the government from further borrowing — even though almost three-quarters of the respondents said that’s not what they want.

These extreme contradictions aren’t atypical. A Gallup poll from late January showed a similar lack of interest in cutting almost anything but foreign aid, even though only 16 percent supported raising the debt ceiling without a deficit reduction agreement in place. That followed a Gallup poll in December that showed very little support for tax increases on anyone but the wealthy.

And just to put an exclamation point on this, a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken at about the same time as the January Gallup poll also found that about 70 percent of respondents wanted the deficit reduced in general, but equal or higher percentages opposed spending reductions in areas that could actually significantly lessen the government’s red ink.

All of this demonstrates three things. First, anyone who insists that Americans are unambiguous about tackling the budget is misreading or misstating the actual situation. Yes, polls consistently show strong opposition to federal debt and strong support for reducing the deficit. But they also show outright hostility to virtually all of the policy changes that would make it possible to substantially reduce the deficit and the amount the government borrows. Anyone who uses only one part of the results to justify his or her proposal or vote, or to condemn others, is cherry-picking the results and should be called out for it.

Second, even though the budget is a numbers problem, these deep contradictions clearly show that the budget is not a rational issue for most Americans; it’s an emotional issue, and that’s why policymakers, interest groups and others typically fail to gain much traction in the debate with graphs and charts.  Desires, dreams and hopes are more important than statistics.

Third, these emotional responses expose the pitfalls of focusing on spending reductions and tax increases. That approach is based on a negative emotion — fear of what will be lost — instead of emphasizing the positive possibilities of a future when the deficit is no longer a concern. We’ll know the federal budget debate has changed when that is what’s being debated, rather than cherry-picked polling results.

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.”