M E M O R A N D U M
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Gretchen Hamel, Public Notice
Nicholas Thompson, Tarrance Group
RE: Polling analysis on government spending, debt and deficits
Forty-eight days out from the election, I invite you to come up for breath from the daily tracking
numbers and take a look at some recent polling data Public Notice has compiled and analyzed
regarding government spending, the debt and deficit. What you find will give you a deeper
understanding of why the race for the White House is deadlocked and what voters are waiting to
hear from the candidates.
Whichever campaign can establish credibility on fiscal responsibility will successfully capitalize
on an important but underserved issue in this campaign. The numbers show that voters are
worried and willing to look closely at the candidate who has a clear strategy to cut spending and
reduce the debt. Here are our key findings:
• Voter concern over spending and the debt has increased by 10 points this year. In
Public Notice’s January tracking poll 43 percent of those surveyed said they and their
family were “very” or “extremely” impacted by the national debt. In August, that number
was up ten points to 53 percent.
• Two-thirds of voters see a link between the debt and the health of the economy.
Almost two-thirds of voters (65 percent) think reducing the debt will improve the
economy, according to a Suffolk poll. Sixty-seven percent of voters say the economy is
extremely or very impacted by the debt, according to a recent Public Notice poll.
• A majority of voters don’t see more government or more government spending as a
solution to our economic problems. According to ABC and The Washington Post, 56
percent of Americans prefer a smaller government, and 53 percent believe government
programs are more likely to interfere with their lives.
• Neither presidential candidate has won voter confidence on spending and the debt.
According to Public Notice’s August poll, only 44 percent of likely voters believe
President Obama has a plan to lower the debt, while 49 percent believe Mitt Romney
CONCERN ABOUT DEBT GROWS WITH DEBT LEVEL
At the end of December 2011, the national debt stood at $15,222,940,045,451. On Aug. 31, it
passed the $16 trillion mark for the first time. That figure represents a daily increase of nearly
$3.25 billion. It is also a significant increase in the per-person burden. At the beginning of
January, the national debt per American was $48,721. Today that figure is $51,047, a nearly five
percent increase in just nine months.
In Public Notice’s January tracking poll 43 percent of those surveyed said they and their family
were “very” or “extremely” impacted by the national debt. In August, that number was up ten
points to 53 percent. We expect that number to continue to grow as the debt grows.
VOTERS WANT A SOLUTION
One of the chief reasons for the rise in earmarks during the late 1990s and 2000s was the belief
that they worked - they got individual members re-elected. Finally, in 2006 with examples like
the “Bridge to Nowhere,” earmarks came to represent corruption in government as Americans
realized these spending items went to the most politically connected beneficiaries and often had
no public benefit.
Instead of earmarks and favors, today Americans want solutions. Why? They understand the
connection the issue of government spending has to their chief concern, the economy. In March
2012, Suffolk found 65 percent of likely voters believe reducing the national debt would directly
contribute to improving the economy, while 28 percent said it would not.
The solutions Americans want include spending cuts. According to Rasmussen, 66 percent of
likely voters think that thoughtful spending cuts should be considered to every federal
government program. Twenty percent do not think cuts should be considered to all programs.
While it is true many Americans are still uncertain what needs to be done to reform the nation’s
largest spending programs—Medicare and Social Security—they do not trust these programs to
provide for them. According to Bloomberg:
• Eighteen percent of likely voters are very confident they will have enough money for
retirement; 22 percent are fairly confident; 20 percent are somewhat confident; and 33
percent are not confident.
• Nineteen percent of likely voters are very confident they will not have to work beyond
the age at which they would like to retire; 16 percent are fairly confident; 14 percent are
somewhat confident; and 34 percent are not confident.
• Nine percent of likely voters are very confident Social Security and Medicare will pay
them the same benefits current retirees are paid; 11 percent are fairly confident; 15
percent are somewhat confident; and 55 percent are not confident.
In other words, they know something must be done. Public Notice’s August 2012 poll found a
majority (67 percent) believe Medicare needs major (46 percent) or modest (21 percent) changes.
The perceived need for major changes to Medicare is driven by younger voters, with 55 percent
of those under 55 saying major changes are needed. However, a plurality (45 percent) of near
retirees (those 55-64) say major changes are needed, along with one third (33 percent) of seniors.
...AND MORE SPENDING ISN’T THE SOLUTION THEY WANT
For the last several years the economy and jobs have topped the issue matrix in terms of what
Americans care most about. While that placement has remained consistent, Americans have
become increasingly wary of new spending as a tool for improving the economy. For example:
• In its most recent poll, released Sept. 11, 2012, ABC and The Washington Post found
most Americans (53 percent) believe government programs are more likely to interfere
with their lives. That number is up from 44 percent in September 2004. Only 40 percent
believe government programs are more likely to help them, down from 46 percent eight
• In August 2012, Resurgent Republic found, when given two choices, only 36 percent of
registered voters (27 percent of Independent registered voters) said it was a higher
priority for government to spend more money to help the economy. Fifty-seven percent
(63 percent of Independents) said a higher priority should be to cut spending to reduce
• In August 2012 Rasmussen found 48 percent of likely voters thought government
spending cuts help the economy. Twenty-five percent said spending cuts hurt the
economy, while 11 percent said they have no impact. Additionally, only 23 percent
thought spending increases help the economy, while 54 percent said they hurt the
economy. Nine percent said more government spending has no impact.
• In May 2012 Gallup found “Americans are more than twice as likely to identify
themselves as conservative rather than liberal on economic issues, 46 percent to 20
A substantial majority of Americans also believe the U.S. is better off with a smaller government
that provides fewer services than one that is larger and provides more services. According to
ABC and The Washington Post, today 56 percent of Americans prefer a smaller government.
That figure has been consistently above 50 percent since the recession began and was similarly
high in 2002, when the U.S. economy was struggling to recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks and in late 2000, when the U.S. was falling into recession.
These figures are backed up by two other recent polls. In August 2012 the Economist found 43
percent of adults agreed with the statement that “government should lend me a hand,” while 57
percent agreed with the statement that “government should leave me alone.” The same month
Fox News found 35 percent of likely voters (25 percent of Independent registered voters) said if
they could send the federal government one message it would be “to lend me a hand.” More than
half—54 percent—of likely voters (63 percent of Independents) said their message would be “to
leave me alone.”
Contrary to the claims of those who support more government spending, Americans inherently
understand that, in times of trouble, more spending it not always the solution.
SO WHO IS WINNING THE WAR ON SPENDING?
In short, no one. Even with their message of smaller government and spending cuts, Republicans
have not yet fully capitalized on Americans’ affinity for debt and deficit reduction.
The reason is trust. While the national debt has increased $5.4 trillion in three and a half years
under President Barack Obama, it increased $3.9 trillion during the 12 years Republicans held
Congress (1995 to 2007) and $4.9 trillion in eight years under former President George W. Bush
(January 2001 to January 2009).
Americans’ frustration is apparent in a June 2012 Reuters poll, which asked respondents whether
Congress and President Obama had done more to hurt or help the economy since the recession
began. President Obama comes out only slightly better than the Congress (largely perceived to
be controlled by Republicans). According to the poll:
• Two percent of adults (1 percent of Independents) believe Congress has helped the
economy a great deal; 9 percent (10 percent of Independents) believe it has helped a fair
amount; 10 percent (4 percent of Independents) believe it has helped a little; 35 percent
(33 percent of Independents) believe it has hurt a great deal; 28 percent (23 percent of
Independents) believe it has hurt a fair amount; and 7 percent (the same number of
Independents) believe it was harmed the economy a little.
• Ten percent of adults (5 percent of Independents) believe President Obama has helped
the economy a great deal; 29 percent (26 percent of Independents) believe he has helped
a fair amount; 11 percent (9 percent of Independents) believe he has helped a little; 25
percent (14 percent of Independents) believe he has hurt a great deal; 15 percent (20
percent of Independents) believe he has hurt a fair amount; and 4 percent (3 percent of
Independents) believe he has harmed the economy a little.
Another reason Americans do not yet fully trust in Republicans’ ability to cut spending is the
party’s reticence to touch the Defense Department. Last month, Ipsos/Reuters asked respondents
which spending programs the federal government could afford to cut. Defense was at the top: 40
percent of registered voters (48 percent of Independent registered voters) said they thought the
federal government can afford to cut back on defense spending. Similarly, Public Notice’s June
poll found 41 percent of Americans favor cutting defense spending. While large numbers of
Americans still oppose defense spending cuts, the military is one of the most popular targets for
To be sure, Americans do not have much trust in President Obama either. According to the most
recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 82 percent of voters think President Obama has the
wrong economic policies. A recent POLTICO/GWU Battleground poll shows Romney with a
slight lead over Obama (49 percent vs. 44 percent) on who Americans think can better handle the
economy, but neither wins a majority.