Reason-Rupe Survey findings in more detail.

Emily Ekins | May 6, 2011

To date, media coverage of the public’s worries over deficit spending has focused on the lack of consensus for how to deal with the nation’s $14 trillion-plus national debt. Analysts and commentators often observe that survey respondents simultaneously call for spending cuts but support maintaining current levels of Medicare, Social Security, and other large-ticket items. Yet, it is not surprising that when survey questions fail to provide realistic immediate trade-offs to survey respondents their answers may lack consistency or feasibility. Typically, pollsters do not follow up with the sorts of inquiries that would clarify the apparent confusion.

The first Reason-Rupe quarterly poll underscores that although the public is divided about how to tackle the national debt, 96% agree that reducing it is important. Moreover, 69% believe reducing the national debt is very important.

This finding is consistent across all demographic groups, party identification, age, income, education, gender, religious activity, and employment status. Significant differences do emerge among political groups answering that reducing the debt is “very important”. With 85% of Tea Party supporters and 80% of non-Tea Party Republicans believing reducing the national debt is very important compared to 59% of Democrats and 60% of Independents. (Non-Tea Party Republicans and nonTP GOP refer to respondents who self-identified as Republicans but were not Tea Party supporters. Tea Party supporters were defined as respondents who said they were very favorable toward the Tea Party.) Despite these differences, solid majorities agree that the debt is a problem.

Note: Tea Party supporters reported they were “very favorable” to the Tea Party movement. nonTP GOP self-identified as Republican who are not Tea Party supporters. Independents only include Independents who did not lean Republican or Democratic. Democrats self-identified as such.

These findings are notable because it reminds policy makers that even though the public may be divided about how to handle the national debt, they emphatically agree that it should be addressed.

In terms of strategy to reduce the debt, the Reason-Rupe poll shows a clear majority (74%) of Americans favor a government-spending cap. This does not directly address reducing the debt, but it does mean slowing its rate of growth. Republicans (84%) and Independents (81%) are significantly more likely to want a spending cap than Democrats (64%), though a strong majority of all favored the limit. (The opposition to a spending cap may be the result of a preference for using increased government spending during a recession in efforts to stimulate the economy. A spending cap would make this difficult.)