Eight in 10 Republicans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll say a default would cause serious harm to the economy, but just 30 percent say it’s essential to raise the limit in a contemporaneous Pew Research Center poll. And 47 percent of Republicans in a new NBC/WSJ poll say that not raising the debt limit would be a “real and serious problem.” The wide ranging results beg the question of just how fearful Republicans really are about passing the Aug. 2 deadline set by the Obama administration.
So what explains the differing findings? The wording of poll questions may explain much of the differences and reveals that Republicans, while deeply concerned about the economic consequences of default, may be doubtful that a failure to meet the administration’s deadline will result in catastrophe. And while Americans broadly fear default, a previous Post-Pew poll showed they also worry that a debt limit increase could lead to more spending – a concern held most strongly by Republicans.
As noted, fully 80 percent of Republicans in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll foresee serious harm for the economy if the government “cannot borrow money after August second to fund its operations and pay its debts.” Seventy-six percent see harm for the nation’s reputation as a safe place to invest and 56 percent worry about the consequences for their personal finances. Trepidation is only somewhat higher among Democrats and independents. Similarly, a Post-Pew poll released last week found 62 percent of Republicans either “very” or “somewhat” concerned that “not raising the debt limit would force the government into default and hurt the nation’s economy.”
The new Pew poll found much less concern among Republicans, but the question also asked about a much more precise issue: whether an “economic crisis” could occur immediately following Aug. 2. Only 30 percent of Republicans said it is “absolutely essential” to raise the debt limit by August 2nd to avoid crisis, while 53 said the nation can make it to Aug. 3 without major economic problems.
Such skepticism about the immediate fallout after the debt limit is reached may reflect a widespread perception among Republicans that Obama is exaggerating the potential consequences. In a new CBS News poll, 51 percent of Republicans say that when Obama speaks about what could happen if the debt ceiling is not raised, he “makes things sound worse” than they actually are. And the ground has been fertile for speculation of the debt limit’s severity -- only 18 percent of Americans and 23 percent of Republicans in last week’s Post-Pew poll professed to understand the consequences of not raising the debt “very well,” both numbers unchanged from May.
In addition to the politicization of the debt limit’s severity, another reason for such wide variation in concern among Republicans may be the fact that Republicans are more concerned about higher government spending than they are about the economic consequences of a default. Fully 88 percent of Republicans in last week’s Post-Pew poll said they were concerned about higher spending if the debt limit is increased. When asked to choose, 66 percent of Republicans named this as the top concern if the debt ceiling is not raised, while fewer than half as many cited potential economic damage.