June 24, 2009

Pollwatch: Comparing the Polls on Spending and the Deficit

A number of recent surveys have attempted to gauge whether deficit concerns are eroding support for government spending to stimulate the economy, but the findings of these efforts are mixed. There is little doubt that Americans are worried about the deficit, but not surprisingly with such a complex issue, the way questions are worded clearly impacts how the public views the debate.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds the public evenly divided over whether deficit reduction or stimulus spending is the higher priority for the government right now. Among 1,005 adults interviewed over landline and cell phones June 18-21, 48% place a higher priority on “spending more to help the economy recover” while 46% prioritize “reducing the budget deficit.”

Two other recent national polls, which gave arguments on both sides of the issue, found the public giving greater priority to deficit reduction than to stimulating the economy. Both the CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys, released last week, made efforts to explain the pros and cons of stimulus spending and deficit reduction, and both found majorities supporting the latter option.

The NBC/WSJ survey asked if the president and Congress should worry more about “boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future” or “keeping the budget deficit down even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.” When these countervailing arguments are provided, they find more siding with deficit reduction by a 23-point margin (58% vs. 35%). The CBS/NYT survey asked if the government “should spend money to stimulate the national economy, even if it means increasing the budget deficit” or “should NOT spend money to stimulate the national economy and should instead focus on reducing the budget deficit.” This formulation also found more favoring deficit reduction, but by a narrower 11-point margin (52% vs. 41%).

Inside the Numbers

Not surprisingly, the overall division of opinion in the latest Pew Research survey reflects a steep partisan divide. Republicans prioritize deficit reduction over stimulus spending by more than two-to-one (67% vs. 29%) while Democrats are of the opposite view (70% prioritize spending more to help the economy recover, 25% reducing the deficit). Priorities also differ, less dramatically, along socioeconomic and demographic lines. Just over half (52%) of women prioritize stimulus spending, compared with 44% of men. Most adults under age 30 see stimulus spending as the priority, while most age 65 and older see deficit reduction as the priority. And reducing the deficit is the priority for a greater share of educated and higher-income Americans than it is among less educated and lower income Americans.

Other Measures of Deficit Concerns

Other recent surveys confirm that deficits are a concern to most Americans. In particular, the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey finds 56% saying they are “very concerned” about the size of the federal budget deficit and another 31% “somewhat concerned.” While substantial, this is no higher than concern registered in previous ABC/WP surveys conducted in April and February of this year.

The public takes a mixed view of Barack Obama’s handling of the budget deficit so far. The ABC/Washington Post survey finds as many disapproving as approving (48% each) of the way the president is handling the budget deficit, though by nearly two-to-one more say they trust Obama to do a better job handling the issue (56%) than the Republicans in Congress (30%). The CBS/New York Times survey found just 30% saying the Obama administration has developed a clear plan for dealing with the current budget deficit, while 60% say they have not developed a plan yet. But the Pew Research Center’s June 10-14 survey found 55% optimistic and just 36% pessimistic that Obama’s policies will reduce the budget deficit over the long term, unchanged from the level of optimism in an earlier Pew Research study in April.

The Pew Research Center’s early-April survey found that the public’s spending priorities vary greatly depending on the specific issue. At that time, more prioritized spending to make health care more accessible and affordable over reducing the budget deficit by a 59%-to-35% margin, and a majority also prioritized increased education spending over deficit reduction by about the same margin. But when it came to spending more to develop new energy technology, opinion was divided more evenly, with 49% prioritizing energy spending and 45% deficit reduction.