Polling has begun to emerge on the proposed tax cut deal, and the consensus is that the overall deal is pretty popular. Surveys from both Pew and ABC News / Washington Post support this conclusion. Pew shows support at 65% in favor and 20% opposed. ABC / WaPo has support at 69%-29%.
As always, there is more to learn from any given poll than just the topline results. Here are three important details:
- Whenever survey responses are dominated by people who “somewhat” support / oppose or “somewhat” approve / disapprove of something, it is a clear sign that the universe sampled by the poll does not have strong opinions about the poll topic. And so it is the case with the tax cut deal as well.
According to the ABC / WaPo poll, only 20% of the country “strongly” supports the deal, and only 12% strongly opposes it. More than two-thirds of the country does not feel strongly about it either way. Even though news of the deal dominated political headlines for the past week, the country has not reacted strongly to it.
- While the deal is popular overall, different elements of the deal vary widely in terms of popularity. In particular it is worth noting that the cut to the Social Security payroll tax is actually quite unpopular. From the ABC / WaPo poll (PDF):
The payroll tax is the only individual element of the deal that is opposed by a majority of the country. Further, 39% of the country is “strongly” opposed to the deal, equal to the number who “strongly” and “somewhat” support it combined. This aspect of the deal is a minefield for Democrats, in terms of both policy and politics.
- In case you needed anymore confirmation, people don’t really care about the deficit. In a separate question, ABC News / WaPo poll foregrounded that the deal would balloon the deficit, but most Americans supported it anyway:
- Some people oppose this agreement because it will increase the federal deficit by 900 billion dollars, and some also say it fails to raise taxes on wealthy people who can afford it. Others say it’s worth it in order to let people have more money to spend while the economy is still weak. Given these arguments, is this agreement something you support strongly, support somewhat, oppose somewhat or oppose strongly?
Support: 62% (17% strongly, 45% somewhat)
Oppose: 34% (14% strongly, 20% somewhat)
Americans don’t like the deficit in the abstract. Who does? However, when asked to choose between the deficit and tax cuts / spending that they like, Americans will choose the tax cuts / spending everytime. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, really.
Finally, keep in mind that the popularity of major economic legislation is not determined primarily by polling at the time of passage of the legislation. Instead, major economic legislation will be viewed through the prism of the state of the economy as a whole a year or two down the line. If the economy shows marked signs of improvement of the majority of Americans, then expect this deal to grow even more popular in retrospect. However, if most Americans consider themselves worse off in two years than they are today, then the popularity of this deal will drop precipitously.
When the stimulus passed in early 2009, it was broadly popular. That simply isn’t the case anymore (click here for complete archive of polling on the stimulus). The same thing will happen to this deal if most Americans do not experience tangible improvements in the state of their pocketbooks.