Interviews with poll respondents underscored the distance between these perspectives. “We need to invest in our future even if it costs us a buck now—if it means maintaining deficits for a while,” says Thomas Segel, a retired tile-setter from Gainesville, Mo., in a comment typical of Obama’s supporters.
By contrast, Romney voters expressed passionate concern about the direction of federal spending. And perhaps reflecting the debate over government “dependency” that swirled around Romney’s “47 percent” comment, many of his supporters expressed visceral distaste for transfer programs that benefit the poor. “We need to cut some people off and give them a work program or something,” insisted Chandra, a homemaker in Huntingdon, Tenn., who did not provide her last name. “Put them to work somehow. But they shouldn’t be collecting a check for nothing.” Judy King, a retired jail administrator in Jasper, Texas, was equally vehement. “The deficit is getting worse and worse, and we’re going to fold completely under if they don’t fix it,” she worries. “Quit spending. Cut back. There’s no reason for paying for people who are too lazy to take a job.”
Yet for all the attention and passion focused on the federal deficit, controlling it ranked relatively low among the public’s long-term priorities. When asked which of six actions would most “improve the country over the long term,” just 12 percent picked “eliminating the federal budget deficit through tax increases and spending cuts.” Only “increasing U.S. energy security” ranked lower.
The top priority for long-term renewal, at 30 percent, was “making education more affordable, accessible, and relevant to today’s job market.” Promoting American manufacturing (17 percent), providing incentives to help people start their own business (15 percent), and reducing the trade deficit (14 percent) all finished ahead of controlling the deficit.
These priorities again vary somewhat across racial lines, with improving education a much more decisive top finisher for minorities than for whites. But the real differences are across party lines. Over two-fifths of Obama voters picked improving education as the key to long-term renewal, more than double the share that chose any other option. But education placed last among Romney voters, with only about one in eight identifying it. Reducing the deficit and promoting manufacturing topped the list of Romney-voter priorities.
This divide powerfully resurfaced on another question that asked respondents to choose among different strategies for long-term economic revival. A 43 percent plurality said they see the greatest chance for success in a Democratic-leaning strategy centered on “investments in education, training, infrastructure, and research, even if it means continued deficits and tax increases.” Twenty-nine percent said they believe the economy is most likely to thrive behind a traditionally Republican approach of “tax cuts for businesses and individuals, even if it means continued deficits and cuts to public services.” Just 22 percent said they would bet on “reducing the federal deficit, even if it means both tax increases and cuts to public services.”
Once again, Obama and Romney supporters lined up in contrasting camps. Fully 62 percent of Obama supporters say an investment strategy offers the best prospect for progress. Kendal Karten, a homemaker in Old Bridge, N.J., is typical. “I am a firm believer in investing in ourselves,” she says. “If we invest as a whole, as a people, the dividends are great. If you have a better-educated population, they’ll have better ideas—there will be more entrepreneurs. The role of the government is not necessarily to have no deficit; it’s to stimulate the economy.” Only about one in six Obama voters picked either tax cuts or deficit reduction as the most promising strategy.
By contrast, nearly a combined three-fourths of Romney backers prefer cutting taxes (42 percent) or reducing the deficit (30 percent). Only about one in five would bet on public investment. “Even as an individual person, you can’t overspend, [but] … government is way out of control,” says Connie Weber, a special-education teacher in West Virginia. “It’s in programs the government should have never gotten involved in. Housing and bailing out companies.”
When the poll asked respondents to directly assess the competing strategies for reducing the deficit, the results crystallized both the divergence and ambivalence that so complicate the fiscal debate. Fully 76 percent of those surveyed chose increasing taxes on families earning at least $250,000 annually as an effective strategy for reducing the deficit, more than picked any other option. But the inimical approach of “reducing taxes and regulations to spur economic growth” ranked second at 73 percent.