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The Real Story on Public Support for Government Spending

- February 26, 2013

After seeing some of his tweets this weekend, I asked John Cluverius, a Ph.D. student in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill (and former GW undergrad), for this guest post.  Here’s what he wrote.


On “Up w/ Chris Hayes” this past Sunday, there was a segment on the declining support for government spending by the American public. During a discussion on public opinion of spending and the sequestration, Hayes posted a graphic showing the results of a recent survey from the Pew Research center. The survey found declining support for government funding in a variety of areas. In the segment, Hayes called the result “troubling.”

But looking at only these Pew surveys — and attributing this shift to “Tea Party messaging” — are inconsistent with how scholars think about public opinion toward government spending and why those opinions shift.

Pew does very good public opinion work, but we must be cautious about using a handful of indicators in occasional surveys as evidence of trends in public opinion . As election forecasters have learned, you can get more reliable measures by aggregating results from various surveys.

The Policy Mood measure, maintained by Jim Stimson, is calculated by aggregating hundreds of survey questions over time, such as from public polls and the General Social Survey. Policy mood captures shifts in the the popularity of increased government action over time.  Here is the trend from 1952-2012:

The policy mood data show several key differences from the Pew data. The series shows an upward trend in support for government programs between 1997 and 2008, not the decreasing trend in the Pew data. There is also a very narrow variance in the estimates since 1990; policy liberalism stays between about 52 and 62 percent in that time.  While policy liberalism shifts frequently, these shifts are rarely drastic or permanent.

Examining a longer trend also shows why we might expect the trend in the Pew data to be temporary.  One of the key aspects of policy mood is that tends to react against prevailing government policies. Christopher Wlezien described this response as a “thermostat”: after the government does more and spends more, policy mood becomes less liberal; after the government does less and spends less, it becomes more liberal.  This effect has been discussed in greater detail previously on this blog and others.

In particular, the public’s policy mood responds to changes in party control of the White House.  The public becomes more liberal during the administration of Republican presidents, and more conservative under the administration of Democratic presidents. What’s particularly interesting is that the health care spending question, which has been included in the most Pew batteries, shows the most thermostatic effects: drops in support for increased health care spending in response to debates about both the Clinton and Obama health care plans.

Even if Americans are growing more skeptical of government spending, the change is smaller than the Pew data make it out to be, and it is likely a temporary response to Democratic governance.