How Polls Have Demonized Federal Deficits – Part II

In Part I of this article we examined how a highly respected newspaper like the New York Times employs biased polling questions to arrive at the questionable conclusion that the public is in favor of austerity measures to cut deficits.  In Part II, we shed light on why this happens and its consequences for the economy.

The massive scale of the austerity bias in media polls

To be fair to the New York Times and CBS News, they’re not the only organizations running polls with an austerity bias.  Similarly biased poll results were recently published by Fox News, Pew Research, and Bloomberg. The latest is an ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows most Americans support a 5% cut in overall Federal spending except for the military.

Where lies the inspiration for an austerity bias that seems to have captured the whole polling industry?
One has to look no further than Washington.

The bipartisan roots of the austerity bias

For years the Republicans have been warning Americans that the federal debt now at $16 trillion, will lead to hyperinflation and destroy the economy.  Economists have looked everywhere but, just like President Bush’s WMD scare in Iraq, found nothing. Nevertheless, like a vampire, the message refuses to die.

The Republican prescription for the problem is to cut taxes and government programs.  They believe tax cuts will leave more money in the pockets of consumers which will increase demand and cause the economy to grow.

That logic didn’t work in the crisis of 1929 and there is no reason to think it will work in today’s crisis.  What economists are pretty certain will happen is that deficits will get bigger due to decreased tax revenues.

Having lost their tax cutting argument in the Fiscal Cliff deal, the Republican focus has shifted to promoting austerity through program cuts.

The Democrats on the other hand, while being labeled by Republicans as spendthrifts i.e., pro-stimulus, don’t behave that way at all. Their victory in the Fiscal Cliff standoff was in fact a victory for austerity.

Perhaps more to the point, the limited success of the earlier stimulus program has caused them to doubt its potential for success. There is also a problem with the numbers. The Republican-controlled House makes the likelihood of a new stimulus bill passing through Congress close to zero. Also, it should be noted that during the Grand Bargain negotiations with Republicans, President Obama made explicit his intention to cut spending in the areas of Social Security and Medicare.

Simply put, both parties have come to favor austerity over stimulus.

Consequences of partisan austerity bias on media and public opinion

With neither Party championing stimulus, media stories are pretty well unanimous that the deficits and the debt need to be addressed through some combination of austerity measures.  The precise nature of these measures differs depending on whether they originate from a Republican or a Democratic plan.

If the dominant media message promoted by both Parties is one of austerity, it is therefore not surprising that when polled, a majority of the public, whether Republican or Democrat, supports austerity solutions. That’s confirmed in the earlier finding showing majority support for raising the debt ceiling with offsetting spending cuts.  Republicans support stands at 64% while Democratic support is at 55%.

The clueless American public

However, the public’s lack of understanding of the deficit and fixation with cutting it seems somewhat irrational given that when the sequester kicked in on March 1, it was the mother of all deficit cuts — $1.2 trillion.

Yet most Americans are barely aware of it.

A Pew Research poll found that with respect to the already legislated deficit cuts in the sequester, 72% of Americans have little awareness of the massive cuts (43% said they heard a little about the automatic sequester cuts while 29% said they heard nothing at all) scheduled to begin less than two weeks after the poll.  But that very same poll reports that 70% of Americans feel that it is essential that the President and Congress act on legislation to reduce the deficit this year.

If most of the public aren’t aware of these legislated cuts, yet insist that the legislation to reduce the deficit is “essential”, isn’t the problem one of communication and not the deficit?

The public’s confusion on these matters is even more apparent by its contradictory stance on the desire to see the deficit reduced yet preserve the funding for popular government programs.

Wanting cuts yet wanting it all

A follow-up  Pew Research poll found that 87% of Americans were in favor of increasing spending on Social Security or at least maintaining it at its present level. For Medicare, the corresponding figure was 82%, while for military spending it was 73%.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that if there is to be any impact on the deficit from program cuts, these are the programs that need to be cut.  The polls show that clearly there is no public appetite for this.

If the public is insisting on program cuts to reduce the deficit but doesn’t want cuts to its favorite programs, what is it saying?

The failure of public opinion polling

The polls offer no resolution to this quandary.

What is clear, however, is that in addition to being biased in favor of austerity, public opinion on deficits is neither informed, nor even coherent.

Yet we know that informing the public of the facts can create massive changes in poll results.

This represents a serious failure in public opinion polling.

In a democracy, polling results have consequences.  They structure political debate.  They influence government policy.  Elections are won and lost on the basis of poll results.

In the case of deficits, polls seem to support the conclusion that the public favors austerity measures in deficit reduction.  If they’re wrong, they may result in government decisions that damage the economy, increase unemployment, and create a lot of unnecessary misery.

This is not an idle speculation.

Consequences of austerity in Europe

Austerity policies have fared poorly in Europe, exacerbating the economic problems in many of the countries (unemployment in Spain 25%; in Greece 20%) rather than improving them.  The IMF, having helped push the EU towards austerity, recently came to admit it is not working.  In the UK, austerity caused the economy to fall into another recession.

Given such disappointing results from Europe, America needs to seriously question whether austerity is the direction in which it wants to take its fragile economy.

This was clearly on Ben Bernanke’s mind when he recently testified before Congress on the state of the economy.  Translating from Fed-speak, he warned that the “deficit is not a clear and present danger, spending cuts in a depressed economy are a terrible idea and premature austerity doesn’t make sense even in budgetary terms”.

If success in doing good polling comes with baby steps, a good place to start is with polling questions that are free of bias and yield meaningful and credible answers.

This article was originally posted on March 9, 2013 in iPolitics under the title “How polls demonized federal deficits (Part Two)“.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. Public opinion surveys is an essential communication tool between a democratic society and its leaders. Unfortunately, surveys can be very easily manipulated. Revealing such manipulations and their consequences is the raison d'être of the poll stuff blog.
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