Beyond the Polls: Why Polling on the Debt Ceiling is "Mushy"
by Jean Johnson
While we have avoided an unprecedented federal default for the time being, the debt ceiling matter hasnít been resolved. We could be right at the brink again in just a matter of months. Pundits and politicians from both parties lean on recent polls to demonstrate why their perspective is the one that the American public supports. But have a majority of Americans actually made up their minds about the debt ceiling? This is an issue where a single survey finding taken at face value or in isolation can be misleading.
What polling really reveals is that members of the public are still wrestling with the debt ceiling dilemma. Public opinion on this issue is still "mushy" Ė a term used by Public Agendaís founder Daniel Yankelovich to describe poll findings that arenít stable because people are still absorbing new information and ideas, grappling with trade-offs and unsure what they really think. When opinions are still mushy, survey results can fluctuate dramatically. Once people become more realistic and settled in their views, public opinion tends to be remarkably steady over time.
Here are some chief indicators of mushiness in polling results:
- Peopleís responses are starkly inconsistent, seeming to reflect fundamentally different priorities and values from one question to another.
- Responses shift dramatically depending on how questions are worded or even the order of questions in a survey.
- Many respondents admit theyíre not sure or donít know Ė although some polls make uncertainty hard for respondents to admit, thereby masking the mushiness factor.
For example, few Americans are buying the "default doesnít matter" line of thinking, according to an AP/Gfk poll in October. Six in 10 Americans said it is "extremely" or "very" likely that the U.S. would face a major economic crisis if the debt ceiling isnít raised; just 8 percent said a major economic crisis was "not too likely" or "not at all likely." Yet just a question later, only 3 in 10 said they strongly or even somewhat supported raising the debt ceiling. A surprising 46 percent said they neither supported nor opposed raising it. Thatís hardly what youíd expect people to say if so many of them were really envisioning a major economic meltdown. As the AP itself put it, "people seem conflicted or confused."
We see similar uncertainty in an October poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Overall, their results suggest that Americans have been pretty evenly split on which causes them more concern: "That Congress will not raise the debt ceiling and the federal government will not pay its bills, such as defaulting on its loans and not making payments to Social Security recipients and government workers" (37 percent), or "That Congress will raise the debt ceiling and that federal spending will increase and the government will go further into debt as a result" (41 percent). At the same time, almost 1 in 5 Americans (19 percent) said they "do not know enough about this to have an opinion at this time." Percentages of people willing to admit that they donít know the answer to a poll question are usually in the single digits. The high percentage of "donít knows" in this poll is even more striking given that there has been plenty of news coverage on the pros and cons of raising or not raising the debt ceiling.
But there is one area where the public seems much more certain and resolved: they are ready for compromise. In a CBS poll, a full 77 percent of Americans say that they would prefer having leaders reach an agreement that they themselves didnít fully support versus 17 percent who would prefer "not reaching an agreement on the debt ceiling and having the US go into default on its debts."
Or put another way, 77 percent of people endorse coming to an agreement even if they personally might see the terms of the deal as less-than-optimal. Thatís an impressive majority in support of compromise. Why do we say that this is a more solid, less mushy result than the other results we discuss? For one thing, the "donít know" responses are only 9 percent. For another, the question isnít focused on technical economic matters that average citizens might not fully understand, but rather addresses making decisions and forging progress Ė fundamental principles that everyone can understand.
This result is also consistent with other recent public opinion polling on the same topic even though the wording was slightly different. Support for compromise has actually increased since a January 2013 CBS News poll, which found that 73 percent of Americans would prefer a debt ceiling agreement that they didnít fully support rather than seeing the US stop paying its bills. Only 17 percent who would prefer the government to stop paying its debt obligations.
The call for compromise also echoes what we heard in last yearís National Issues Forums, where citizens gathered to consider different options for tackling the debt. Most said they didnít expect the country to adopt solutions that matched their own preferences and opinions in every respect. Most seemed to assume that they would have to live with some compromises they personally didnít like. As one woman put it "everyone must see that every group is making a sacrifice ... Everyone must be seen to be giving up something."
In our work, weíve seen Americans call for compromise time and time again to make headway on tough issues, especially the tough issues surrounding the debt. For most, the question isnít whether they and their neighbors are willing to compromise and make concessions for the good of the country and the next generation. Itís whether their elected leaders in Washington are willing to do the same.
Interested in getting a deeper perspective on the polls and what Americans are really thinking about the important issues of the day? Public Agenda is joining with the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation to provide monthly insight through our new Beyond the Polls blog. Weíre launching in November. Look for it on On the Agenda and on our partnersí web sites, and sign up to receive updates when we post a new column.