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Who Cares about Budget Deficits?

- February 27, 2013

We welcome another guest post from Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler.


With Republican deficit hawks digging in on the sequester, liberal politicians and pundits have been quick to point out the GOP’s silence on this issue during George W. Bush’s presidency (e.g. here, here, and here).  Of course, prominent Democrats, including Barack Obama, who used the mounting debt to criticize the previous administration, aren’t exactly a model of consistency on the deficit either.

This sharp reversal in elite partisan discourse about the debt since Obama took office should produce profound shifts in public opinion, especially amongst the most informed Democrats and Republicans.  For, as John Zaller’s groundbreaking account of public opinion demonstrates, the best informed partisans are quickest to update their beliefs in response to elites’ position changes because they are most likely to receive those messages.

Consistent with that expectation, the figure below shows a dramatic shift between 2007 and 2011 in the importance well-informed partisans placed on the federal budget deficit.  The display graphs out the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who thought the federal budget deficit was at least a very important issue in 2007-2008 AP/Yahoo Election Panel Study and the baseline wave of the 2011-2012 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP).  The responses of Democrat and Republicans are broken down by their level of political information, which captures how much attention they pay to politics.  It is important to note that the 2007 and 2011 percentages are not directly comparable because the issue importance response options and political awareness items were different in the two surveys.  Yet the shift is unmistakable nonetheless.

Back in December 2007, politically attentive Democrats were 20 percentage points more likely than politically attentive Republicans to say that the federal budget deficit was at least a very important issue.  Four years later, though, the most politically attentive Republicans were now a whopping 60 points more likely than their Democratic counterparts to say the deficit is very important.

Contrary to some recent media claims that the deficit is an issue average Americans care about, it appears that public perceptions of the debt’s importance are fundamentally linked to which party is making it an issue.  These results are consistent with research showing that Americans’ issue positions are often consequences rather than causes of their vote choices and help explain why increases in the federal budget deficit do not significantly predict vote tallies in national elections.