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Why you shouldn’t pay any attention to debt ceiling numbers right now

SIREN: A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll shows that twice as many people oppose raising the debt ceiling as support it!!!

This is a siren.

Before the political machine gets itself too wound up over this data point, let's make one thing clear: this polling question should not be taken as evidence of much of anything just yet.

Here's why.

First, check out the the question NBC/WSJ asked.  Here's the exact wording:

"As you may know the federal debt ceiling acts as a check and limit on the country’s overall liabilities, including the federal deficit and other debts. When the U.S. Treasury needs to issue debt above the ceiling in order to avoid going into bankruptcy and defaulting on its obligations, Congress needs to vote to raise the ceiling. Congress is again currently considering whether and how much to extend the debt ceiling. Do you think Congress should or should not raise the debt ceiling? If you don’t know enough to have an opinion, please just say so."

That's an entirely reasonable statement of what the debt ceiling is/does.  But, it's also a lot of words (96!) in a poll question that most respondents likely hear only as "do you think the federal government should spend more money or not?"  And, not surprisingly, a larger number of people think it should not than think it should.

The reality is that people simply don't pay attention to this sort of stuff unless it is right in front of their face. As in, people don't really know (or care) what the debt ceiling is or does until we are on the verge of defaulting -- and then they start paying (some) attention.

The trend line in the NBC/WSJ poll tells the story. In July 2011, 28 percent of people said Congress should raise the debt ceiling while 39 percent opposed such a move. One month later, the numbers had switched with 38 percent in support of raising the debt ceiling and 31 percent in opposition.

What changed? The debt ceiling debate and the dangers of defaulting received massive coverage in the month between the polls. As people began to grasp what not raising the debt ceiling might mean for the country, their opinions on the question changed.

So, why are the numbers back to July 2011 levels? Because in addition to not knowing or caring much about the debt ceiling, Americans have very short memories for this sort of stuff.

Think of the period between the July 2011 and August 2011 polls as a a night in college when you crammed for a test the next day.  Sure, when the test came, you felt relatively knowledgeable about the subject matter. But, did you remember anything about it a week later? How about a month later? That's kind of like the American public's collective memory when it comes to the debt ceiling.

Here's the thing: Another test is coming up this fall. And, just like last time around, the American public will cram for it -- via the news media's flooding-the-zone coverage. Minds will likely change. So, don't read too much into the poll numbers on the debt ceiling just yet.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Juliet Eilperin · September 13, 2013

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