Deficits & Politics

Just want to add my two cents, and local example, to something being discussed in the blogosphere today about deficits and public perception and politics. Spoiler alert: my two cents is that political analysis should always assume that voters don't actually care about government budgetary problems, regardless of what those voters say.

Greg Sargent noticed today that polls suggest that voters -- especially independent voters, who decide big elections -- simultaneously A) agree with President Obama's approach to tackling the deficit problem, and B) disapprove of Obama's handling of the deficit problem. Sargent identifies this conundrum as a political challenge for Obama in winning over those indies for his re-elect. Kevin Drum ponders and concludes that indy voters just don't understand what Obama's deficit plan is, so their disapproval is really transference of their general negativity toward the economy and budgets. Jonathan Bernstein (aka my brother) repeats his contention that many, if not most, indies think of "the deficit" as essentially a synonym for "the economy." Jamelle Bouie concurs and provides the clip and transcript of a great example from 1992.

All good stuff. Now, let me talk about Charlie Baker.

Charlie Baker essentially centered his entire 2010 gubernatorial campaign around the message that he, and not Deval Patrick, had a serious plan to address the projected massive state budget gap. I would talk to people involved with the campaign about this strategy, and the conversations would be along the lines of me asking why the campaign was being so stupid, and them saying "have you seen poll numbers on this?"

It's true: if you looked at polling, you would think that Massachusetts voters not only gave a rat's ass about the state government's balance sheet, but gave a really big enormous rat's ass about it. But I promise you that they did not.

The reason they do not is beautifully captured by that 1992 exchange, which involves a voter asking the candidates how the deficit affects them personally. Which confuses GHW Bush, because governmental budget deficits, or shortfalls, do not affect people personally. Oh, sure, I know they do, but you know what I mean.

People have a general awareness that governmental budget deficits are bad. And, of course, that federal ones are worse. And when there's a lot of media coverage of them -- say, when one side is trying to make a big partisan issue out of it -- they think it's worse.

Here's what I've always wanted to see tried: a poll asking about the importance of acting to reduce the federal debt, but prefacing the question to different respondents with wildly different statements of what the debt actually is. "As you may know, the current national debt will reach $15 trillion...," "...will reach $2 trillion...," "...will reach $300 billion...," "...will reach $125 trillion...." I doubt there would be any significant difference in how much of a rat's ass people say they give.

Seriously, does anybody really think that most people have any idea whether one trillion or 15 trillion is a dangerous amount of debt for the US to carry? And why? Or whether a $1.6 billion state budget gap (Massachusetts's this year) is a lot, or a little?

And more importantly -- and as I repeatedly asked those Baker people -- do you really think that "persuadable" voters actually walk into a voting booth and cast their ballots based primarily on that issue?

I do not believe it. And yet, I have seen analysis, and campaign strategy, based on that assumption in almost every Presidential and gubernatorial cycle I've ever followed. Idiocy, if you ask me.

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