January 4, 2013

If there’s anything politicians should be extremely wary of, it’s friendly partisan polls that suggest they’ll be in great shape if only they embrace issue positions and procedural strategies that they wanted to support anyway.

And yet that’s exactly what Republicans appear to be doing with regard to the debt limit, as Jennifer Rubin reported this morning. Dave Weigel has the details about a GOP-sponsored Winston Group poll which asked about the debt limit, and which John Boehner apparently used to rally his House Republican conference. Essentially, there are three findings: respondents strongly oppose raising the debt limit; they agree even more strongly that any debt limit increase should be tied to spending cuts; and they opposed raising the debt limit even if not doing it would mean cuts in “Medicare, Education, Defense, and other government programs.”

The problem? The poll gives virtually no information at all about public opinion about a debt limit fight — or who would be blamed if the federal government defaults.

There’s basically two pieces of information in the poll. One is that raising the debt limit or debt ceiling polls badly. We know that; it’s why, before 2011, debt limit fights were mainly about making one party have to supply the votes for it. The other is that “cut spending” polls well.

Yet both of those pieces of information are isolated from the real debt limit battle. As far as the debt ceiling is concerned, hardly anyone has any idea of what it is in the first place. More to the point, that people think “raise the debt limit” is bad tells us nothing about how they would react to an economic crash caused by government default. As for spending, it’s well known that generic calls to “cut spending” are popular, but so is increasing spending on virtually every individual program the government actually spends money on. In any actual battle, Republicans will eventually be identified with specific cuts (even if they resist supporting specific cuts, Democrats will fill in the blanks). 

In other words, this kind of polling tells us absolutely nothing about how a real debt limit fight, much less a default, would play out in terms of public opinion. What we do know is that it’s hard enough for Congress (which is always unpopular) to win the spin on these kinds of fights with any president. Given that Obama is relatively popular right now while House Republicans are scraping bottom, it’s even less likely that they would win, despite what junk polling like this says about it.