President Obama: “By the way, more voters agreed with me on this issue than voted for me. So we’ve got a clear majority of the American people who recognize if we’re going to be serious about deficit reduction, we’ve got to do it in a balanced way.”
President Obama made his remark about voters agreeing with him during a Nov. 14 press conference. The president’s claim of “clear majority” support for his position on deficit reduction finds no clear support in the exit poll data from the 2012 election.
First, the president’s remarks with added context:
I think it’s important to establish a basic principle that was debated extensively during the course of this campaign. I mean, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. If there was one thing that everybody understood was a big difference between myself and Mr. Romney, it was when it comes to how we reduce our deficit, I argued for a balanced, responsible approach, and part of that included making sure that the wealthiest Americans pay a little bit more.
I think every voter out there understood that that was an important debate, and the majority of voters agreed with me. By the way, more voters agreed with me on this issue than voted for me. So we’ve got a clear majority of the American people who recognize if we’re going to be serious about deficit reduction, we’ve got to do it in a balanced way.
Gallup, Nov. 14 2012:
The Gallup poll does not represent American voters but Americans generally. The middle category, moreover, may not match Mr. Obama’s conception of a “balanced” approach to addressing the deficit.
A 2011 poll from the Washington Post/ABC News helps illustrate how poll questions may lead poll respondents. The question asked “Overall, what do you think is the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit – (by cutting federal spending), (by increasing taxes), or by a combination of both?” Fifty-seven percent favored “both” in June of 2011. Again, this poll was not restricted to voters and may not contain an accurate representation of the president’s idea of a “balanced” approach. The selection of answers tends to narrowly slot respondents in a middle category with room for widely differing views.
A Fox News report on the exit polls showed following question: “Should taxes be raised to help cut the budget deficit?” Responses in favor made up 33 percent, those opposed amounted to 63 percent. MSNBC reported the same exit poll question with the same results.
The New York Times concurred:
Three-fifths of voters said they opposed raising taxes to help cut the deficit, a finding that favored Mr. Romney. But almost half support higher taxes on incomes over $250,000, as Mr. Obama has proposed.
Analyzing the rhetoric:
How do we derive “a clear majority” favoring the president’s “balanced approach” out of the poll data? Emily Schultheis of Politico provided one potential method:
More than half of voters favor increasing taxes, according to early exit polls released Tuesday night.
Six in 10 voters nationwide say they think taxes should be increased, a welcome statistic for President Barack Obama and a sign that the president’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts for the wealthy may have been effective.
Schultheis relies on an exit poll question asking voters about increasing income taxes. The question reads “Should income tax rates:” and offers respondents the options of “Increase for all,” “Increase only on income over $250,000” or “Not increase for anyone.” The lack of an option to prefer a tax decrease for all probably clues most respondents to answer the question in terms of addressing the Bush tax cuts. Addressing the future of the Bush tax cuts makes up part of the”fiscal cliff” scenario, making the poll question at least relevant to that issue.
The problem occurs, as noted at the blog “Patterico’s Pontifications,” from claiming majority support for a “balanced” approach when the exit poll results for the question directly addressing that issue say otherwise. If the president relies on that method then he combines support for a potentially unbalanced approach with support for the balanced approach to achieve the majority that supposedly agrees with his view. At the same time, he ignores the contrary evidence.
Unless we’re missing something, the president has his facts wrong. The exit poll data do not contain clear evidence of the supposed clear majority support Mr. Obama claims for his “balanced” approach. His rhetoric also contains a hint of the fallacy of appeal to popularity. Popular support does not make a policy correct, though it’s a useful support in political terms for influencing the passage of legislation. Because of the latter we won’t charge Mr. Obama with using a fallacious appeal.
Gauging the true public support for a particular policy requires a specific description of the policy combined with polling that makes proper use of the description. We appear to lack both requirements in this case.
Might the general population favor the president’s “balanced” approach to the deficit? Perhaps. The poll data from 2011 cited above offer some supporting evidence. But in that case it doesn’t follow from the voters agreeing with the president. The exit polls make that clear. The November Gallup data representing the general population show greater support for spending cuts then tax increases:
With 45% of Americans favoring an equal amount of spending cuts and tax increases, and another 11% favoring a greater emphasis on tax increases, the Nov. 9-12 USA Today/Gallup poll suggests that a majority of Americans, 56%, are now open to the idea of reducing the deficit equally or mostly with tax increases. In July 2011, 43% favored deficit reduction either equally or mostly through tax increases, and in May 48% did.
Overall, as was the case last year, most Americans — now 85% — are comfortable with achieving deficit reduction mostly (40%)or equally (45%) with spending cuts.
It’s also worth noting that the president takes for granted that his policy prescription is the right one. It wasn’t just that a supposed majority favored his “balanced” view. Voters supposedly “recognize” that serious deficit reduction requires his “balanced” approach. The president’s view, from this style of rhetoric, is a truth one discovers rather than an opinion one happens to favor.
We have previously addressed the issue of whether serious deficit reduction requires tax hikes along the lines of President Clinton’s approach in the 1990s.
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