Polls show bad news for both sides of debt debate


New polls on the debate over whether and how much to raise taxes or cut spending to reduce the nation's debt as part of a debt ceiling agreement yield bad news for both camps.

Recent polls suggest the public is willing to accept some higher taxation, which doesn't support the Republican stand.

But the polls also show the public expects spending cuts to be the bigger part of a debt-resolution plan, something Democrats may be highly reluctant to accept because of the implications for the Social Security and Medicare entitlements.

The separate polls are anything but unanimous.

In fact, the polling is so inconclusive that politicians may just be forced to fall back on their own judgment. Just Thursday, two respected polling firms reported virtually opposite conclusions.

The Quinnipiac (Conn.) University Polling Institute said voters, by 67-to-25 percent, told them that an agreement to raise the debt ceiling should include tax hikes for the wealthy and corporations, not just spending cuts.

But Rasmussen Reports said only 34 percent of respondents believe a deal to reduce the deficit as a condition for raising the debt limit should include tax increases. It said 55 percent of respondents don't think the debt ceiling agreement should include tax hikes.

David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, said the polls can be skewed by the way the questions are asked.

"The Quinnipiac numbers are fairly favorable to the Democratic position, but it's a pretty easy position for people to be favorable on, which is that they want to see the deficit cut but they want to have it include taxes increased on the rich. That's because everyone defines the rich as someone other than themselves," Mr. Jackson said.

Indeed, the Rasmussen question may have implied to some voters that everyone would have to share the pain.

The Quinnipiac question was, "Do you think any agreement to raise the national debt ceiling should include only spending cuts or should it also include an increase in taxes for the wealthy and corporations?"

The Rasmussen question was, "As part of legislation to raise the debt ceiling, should Congress and the President raise taxes?"

President Obama has proposed higher taxes on higher-income Americans, not an across-the-board increase, as might be implied by the Rasmussen question.

Mr. Jackson said that he doesn't believe the debt limit issue showdown is something that American voters are following closely.

"I think the public wants the unemployment rate to start coming down and I don't think the public is tuned in or keyed into this issue," Mr. Jackson said.

On that point, Quinnipiac found that voters by 49 to 43 percent believe it's more important to reduce unemployment than to reduce government spending.

Rasmussen's poll of 1,000 likely voters found that Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year showed that they are evenly divided as to whether a tax hike should be included in the debt ceiling deal, while those who earn less are more opposed to including tax hikes.

A poll released Wednesday by Gallup found a clear preference for spending cuts over tax increases, but that a big majority of Americans favor a blend of the two.

The survey showed that only 20 percent of respondents believe the deficit should be reduced only with spending cuts, which is basically the position of House Republicans as expressed by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio); another 30 percent said the deficit should be reduced "mostly" with spending cuts.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, as seen by Gallup, are 11 percent of the voters who said the deficit should be reduced only or mostly through tax increases. Thirty-two percent said tax increases and spending cuts should be equal.

Polling on the debt limit issue has delved into other topics besides whether the deal should include tax increases.

On Monday, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Washington Post released a poll in which they asked what voters feel will be the long-term consequences of raising -- or not raising -- the debt limit.

The survey of 1,007 adults, conducted July 7-10, found that independent voters were increasingly concerned that raising the limit would lead to higher government spending.

The trend may favor Republicans because it shows an increase among those worried more about higher government spending than the danger of default, something on which the Obama Administration has tried to raise the alarm.

A related question in many polls is whether voters approve of President Obama's job performance.

The Quinnipiac poll showed that voters disapprove of the way the President is handling the economy by 56-38 percent. But by 45 to 38 percent, they trust the President more than congressional Republicans to handle the economy.

"The American people aren't very happy about their leaders, but President Barack Obama is viewed as the best of the worst, especially when it comes to the economy," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling institute.

Contract Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.