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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Debt Default and Public Opinion

As the two parties in Washington reach a critical point in the negotiations and maneuvering over the debt limit and an impending default, there are wildly varying claims being made about public opinion on the subject. At HuffPost Pollster, Mark Blumenthal sorts through the claims and provides some clarity on a very murky subject:

First, the debt ceiling issue is inherently complex and remote. Fewer than a third of Americans say they are closely following the debate. A Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey in early July found just 18 percent of Americans saying they understood “very well” what would happen if the government does not raise the debt ceiling, and a subsequent Pew Research poll found more than half (52 percent) saying they find the debt limit issue hard to understand.

Even among those who feel they have a grip on the whole interlocking set of topics, different survey wordings elicit very different emotions:

Americans don’t like the sound of debt or deficits. So when a pollster asks, as the Fox News poll did this week, whether Congress should pass an “up or down vote on raising the nation’s debt limit,” 60 percent say they would vote against while only 35 percent would vote in favor.
But Americans also don’t like the idea of default and bankruptcy. So when a pollster explains, as an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll question did this week, that an increase is necessary for the U.S. Treasury “to avoid going into bankruptcy and defaulting on its obligations,” more favor raising the debt limit (38 percent) than not (31 percent).
Perhaps more important, the anxiety about rising debt is strongly related to worries about government overspending. So when pollsters ask about proposals to increase the debt ceiling that also include cuts in government spending — as on this week’s CNN poll — they find majority support.
Of course, huge majorities also oppose cuts on spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as the new CNN poll reaffirms. So if a deal achieves significant spending reductions that include cuts in those popular programs, some future polling question may well show majority opposition to that deal.

So is public opinion on the debit limit and a possible debt default just a meaningless hash that politicians should ignore–or fee confident they can manipulate? Not exactly.

[F]or all the contradiction, the polls of the last week or so have produced some consistent findings:
* Every poll released this week that asked found Americans prefer a deal featuring a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts to a deal featuring just spending cuts.
* Most of the surveys find strong sentiment in favor of compromise, especially among Democrats and independents.
* The surveys all show Americans expressing significantly more confidence and trust in President Obama’s handling of the issue than of either the Republican or Democratic leadership in Congress.
* The polls that have tracked identically-worded questions about raising the debt ceiling, such as CBS News, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Pew Research Center and YouGov/Polimetrix, have all shown sentiment rising in favor of increasing the limit.

This is probably why congressional Democrats are increasingly encouraging their leadership to toughen their stance at a time when they are beginning to hold a stronger, if hardly steady, hand in public opinion.

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