Do Americans hate the Norquist anti-tax pledge?

December 7, 2012

Eighty percent of Americans agree on almost nothing (even Olympic swimming!).

But a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found exactly such consensus on one of the central issues in the debate over the “fiscal cliff”: 85 percent of registered voters, including 77 percent of Republicans, said it was a “bad idea” for members of Congress to promise to “never increase taxes on corporations or the wealthy under any circumstance”.

While not explicitly mentioned in the poll question, the result has been widely interpreted as gauging support for the anti-tax pledge advocated by Grover Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform. 

Of course, the question and the ATR pledge are not exactly the same. As the Post’s Natalie Jennings explains: “The actual pledge that most Republican members of Congress have signed is a ban on all tax increases; it does not single out the wealthy.”

This is a critical point.

Raising taxes on the wealthy is quite popular, earning 60 percent support in a Post-ABC poll released last week. By singling out the wealthy and corporations, the new Quinnipiac poll may overstate the public’s aversion to the pledge. Because it prohibits raising taxes on any individuals, the Americans for Tax Reform pledge also protects against tax hikes on those lower incomes, which is extraordinarily popular.

Surprisingly, there's been little polling done that aims to measure the pledge’s overall popularity (shame on us pollsters!). While not an up or down vote, a 2007 CBS News poll found 43 percent of registered voters saying it is “extremely” or “very” important that a presidential candidate pledge not to raise taxes. Whatever the reality on public opinion and the pledge, there seems to be little doubt that the scheduled expiration of Bush-era tax cuts has put Republicans in a bind and the pledge’s sway in danger.

Riding momentum from his re-election in November, Obama has insisted tax rates increase for income above $250,000. House speaker John Boehner rejected the proposal, but some Republican centrists are calling on him to concede the battle over tax rates in an effort to bargain for spending cuts. Republicans are also under more pressure to compromise, with most Americans saying they would be to blame if there is no agreement.

Still, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll this summer found evidence that Republicans want their leaders to hold strong in negotiations with Democrats. Most Republicans (54 percent) said their party should stick with their positions “even if it means a lack of cooperation,” while 54 percent of Democrats preferred “trying to cooperate across party lines, even if it means compromising on important issues.”

But on the tax issue, there are signs Republicans are becoming more open to raising taxes on the rich. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that since 2010, the share of Republicans supporting renewal of tax cuts for all income groups dropped from 74 to 48 percent.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.
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Sean Sullivan · December 7, 2012