No, people don’t understand the budget. But the polls still matter — a lot.

September 26, 2013

The current budget and debt limit debates in Congress bring the inevitable slew of polls telling us precisely what the American people think about all of it.

And, without fail, whenever The Fix team writes or tweets about one of these polls, the doubters make the same point.

The polls don't matter one bit, they say, because the American people don't know diddly squat about the budget and/or the debt limit.

A sampling:

All of these people have a point. It's irrefutable that the vast majority of Americans only watch politics casually and probably don't really understand what's going on -- especially in the complex realm of budget politics.

(Case-in-point: A Bloomberg poll released Thursday morning showed 59 percent of Americans think the deficit is getting bigger, while just 10 percent said it's getting smaller. The 10 percent are correct.)

But the first part of the statement above -- that polls don't matter -- is 100 percent false.

The fact is that, if we disqualified any poll in which the American people didn't have a full (or even passing) understanding of the topic, the vast majority of polls would be rendered moot. Whether it's the budget, the debt limit, or anything else that Congress is doing (including President Obama's now-three-year-old health-care law), most Americans don't know a whole lot about exactly what we're talking about.

Despite this, there is one fact that trumps all of it: Each of these people has precisely the same number of votes in the 2014 and 2016 elections -- one.

Americans are low-information poll respondents, but they are also low-information voters. And however ill-informed their opinions are about the current budget debate, those ill-informed opinions will also have a direct impact on who is elected (or reelected) to Congress and the presidency.

It may not be what the Founding Fathers desired, but it's true.

In addition, while these polls may not be a great predictor of how Americans would really feel if they totally understood complex policy issues, they do reflect the general political values that underpin these issues -- that Americans like spending cuts, for example, or that they are worried about the size of government.

Let's go back to the Bloomberg poll. Even as President Obama can demonstrably prove that the deficit is, in fact, getting smaller, the fact that most Americans perceive it as getting bigger is a political problem for him and his party.


(Side note: We think the reason Americans misunderstand this issue is because they are transposing "deficit" -- the current year's shortfall -- with the overall size of the national debt, which is in fact continuing to grow, albeit at a smaller rate. But the point stands.)

The health-care debate is also a good example. As Greg Sargent noted last week, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Americans opposed Obamacare 52-42 also showed that 69 percent who opposed the law felt like they don't have enough information to really understand what will happen when it's implemented.

But despite the fact that these people may not have all the information, their opinion matters hugely in the current debate over defunding the law. In fact, these polls are the very reason we're having this whole debate over defunding Obamacare and a potential government shutdown.

Make no mistake: the polls matter, and they will continue to matter.

Peyton Craighill contributed to this post.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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