Democrats Winning the Battle of Reasonableness on the Deficit

This memo looks at three recent polls from Washington Post-ABC News,1 NBC News-Wall Street Journal,2 and CBS News3 and lays out five key lessons for negotiators. In writing this memo, our intent is not to congratulate Democrats (who are now winning the battle of public opinion) or chide Republicans. Rather, it is to use hard data from our original polling of swing voters in November and three fresh polls from non-partisan news outlets to encourage Democrats to continue to seek a “grand bargain” on the deficit and to buck up leading Republicans who are open to revenue measures by showing that good policy, in this case, is good politics.

Our view that real action on the deficit is good politics is grounded in our November poll of what we termed “droppers and switchers”—a survey of 1,000 Obama voters from 2008, 500 of whom stayed home and 500 of whom voted Republican in the 2010 midterm elections. What we found, overwhelmingly, was that the deficit and government spending were the primary drivers behind their change in voting behavior.

66% of switchers, for example, said “too much government spending” was a major reason for the change in their vote. That scored 14 points higher than jobs and 15 points higher than the health care bill as major reasons that switchers cited as factors in voting Republican.4 Even among “droppers” (those who stayed home), Democrats received tepid marks on being “serious about reducing the federal budget deficit.”5 And by strong margins (32 points among switchers and 8 points among droppers), these voters chose “deficits are a serious problem that are weakening the economy” over “deficits are a concern but we have more pressing priorities.”6

But our poll found something else that was equally as important: these key swing voters wanted compromise. By a 40 point margin, switchers wanted Congressional Republicans to compromise with the President to pass legislation (the margin was 57 points among droppers) when compared to “stand on principle.”7 By a 58 point margin, switchers wanted the President to compromise with Congressional Republicans (21 points among droppers) rather than “stand on principle.”8

Based on several polls released this week, we believe that these two issues—the deficit and compromise—have become intertwined and inseparable. That is to say (with apologies to Keats), deficit reduction is compromise, compromise is deficit reduction. And for the first time in recent memory, Democrats now have the edge on the deficit as Republicans are increasingly seen as unwilling to compromise—particularly among Independents.

1) Americans overwhelmingly favor a balanced deal.

Attitudes have changed significantly in just the past month on the debt ceiling and a deficit reduction package. The Wall Street Journal poll indicates that 38% of the country now thinks the debt ceiling should be raised compared to 31% who say it should not. In June, those numbers were flipped: 28% supporting and 39% opposing raising the debt ceiling.

When it comes to the deficit, the Washington Post poll found that 62% of Americans believe a deal should involve a combination of spending cuts and tax increases—up from 57% last month. And the Wall Street Journal poll indicates that 62% of Americans and 61% of Independents think that Republicans should agree to raise taxes to get a deal. When offered a choice between the proposals of President Obama and Republican leaders, 58% in the Wall Street Journal poll support the Obama plan, with only 36% choosing the Republican proposal.

2) Americans expect and embrace a balanced deal that includes things they don’t like.

Americans not only understand, but want, a compromise that means “we give something; you give something.” In the Wall Street Journal poll, 73% of Independent voters want Democrats to compromise on the deficit and 68% want Republicans to do so. Most striking, the CBS News poll shows that 76% of Americans prefer an agreement they don’t like, compared to 14% who would choose not to get a deal. That supermajority also includes 72% of Independents and 78% of Republicans.

These strong numbers in favor of a balanced compromise that includes both cuts and revenue raisers have occurred after the President and prominent Democrats indicated a willingness to put their most sacred cows on the table. This was a crucial point in changing public perception of the debate and has 1) helped cast Democrats as more serious and reasonable than Republicans when it comes to deficit reduction, and 2) made voters more accepting of revenue raisers.

3) The country believes a balanced deal is in the national interest.

Americans are now seriously concerned about the consequences of not getting a deal. According to the Washington Post poll, 82% of the country thinks that not raising the debt ceiling would have a serious impact on the economy—up from 71% last month. And a full 60% think that not raising the debt ceiling would harm their own personal financial situation. The Wall Street Journal poll shows 55% who say that not raising the debt ceiling would be a “real and serious problem,” with only 18% saying it would not.

As noted above, our droppers and switchers poll found landslide support for leaders in Washington who “compromised with [the other party] to pass legislation,” compared to those who “stand on principle even if it means less legislation is passed.”9

4) Republicans are seen as stubborn and are losing the battle of reasonableness on the deficit.

Americans, and particularly Independents, are in a very different place than congressional Republicans. They now increasingly view Republican leaders as unwilling to compromise. In the Washington Post poll, 77% say Republicans aren’t willing enough to compromise, up from 71% in March, and the plurality (42%) say they would blame Republicans if we reached the debt ceiling without a deal. The CBS News poll shows that 60% of Americans think President Obama is trying to find a solution to the problem, while 62% think Republicans are not trying to find a solution.

The same poll shows 71% disapprove of Republican leaders’ handling of the negotiations, including 73% of Independents. Even 51% of Republicans disapprove of their own party leaders’ handling of the negotiations, while only 22% of Democrats disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the issue.

When asked whether they approved of Republicans’ handling of specific issues, 68% in the Washington Post poll disapproved of Republican leaders’ approach on the deficit, 67% disapproved on the economy, and 65% on taxes. President Obama’s disapproval level on the deficit was 8 points lower, and on the economy it was 10 points lower than that of Republicans. On taxes, President Obama’s disapproval rating was a full 18 points lower than that of Republican leaders—indicating the serious level of dissatisfaction Americans are feeling towards the line-in-the-sand stance Republican leaders have taken.

5) President Obama appears to be seizing the leadership mantle on the deficit.

The changes in views brought about by this debate could reverberate well past the debt ceiling deadline. According to the CBS News poll, Americans think that President Obama is more concerned with doing what is best for their family in the debt ceiling negotiations—by 19 points. And that gulf is affecting their views on other issues as well. When asked who cares more about a series of specific economic interests in the Washington Post poll, Americans ranked President Obama above Republicans for caring about the economic interests of “you and your family” (by 10 points), “small business” (by 9 points), and “middle class Americans” (by 18 points).

As noted above, the President’s gains came after he put items on the negotiating table that are considered third rails in American politics—Social Security and Medicare—as well as taxes.


Last November, Republicans swept into control of the House with two mandates: one they understood and one they did not comprehend. Yes, voters wanted serious work on the deficit with a healthy dose of spending cuts. But they also wanted compromise. When we asked our droppers and switchers what they would say if they had a chance to speak to the President and the new Republican Congressional leadership, the resounding response was “work together.”

As we stated up top, our hope is that able Republican leaders in Congress will see that the line-in-the-sand positions on revenue must be erased. We also hope that Democrats continue to push for a balanced “grand bargain” and a target of $4 trillion in deficit reduction. It now seems conclusive that this grand bargain would give most Americans cause to rejoice and may even raise their opinion of Congress.

End Notes