Cut the Debt By Cutting Government

The first Reason-Rupe Poll shows a country more radical than its politicians.

As Congress grappled over the federal government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling this spring, the first-ever quarterly Reason-Rupe Poll found that 69 percent of Americans consider it “very important” to reduce the national debt. Another 17 percent deemed it “important,” while 10 percent said “moderately important.” A full 84 percent of Americans want a reduction in government spending to be part of the solution to the debt crisis; 42 percent want an increase in taxes to be part of the solution.

This is the first in a series of Reason-Rupe public opinion surveys dedicated to exploring what Americans think about public policy. The project, which you can follow and parse in greater detail at, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation. This first report surveyed a random, national sample of 1,200 adults by telephone (859 on landlines, 341 on cell phones) from March 24 to April 9, 2011. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. The poll was conducted for the Reason Foundation by NSON Opinion Strategy.

Taxes and Spending

Concern about the debt (see Figure 1) is consistent in all groups, regardless of race, party identification, age, income, education, gender, religious activity, or employment status. Significant differences between political groups do emerge on the question of whether reducing the debt is “very important”: Eighty-five percent of Tea Party supporters and 80 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans think so, compared to 60 percent of independents and 59 percent of Democrats.

Media coverage of the public’s worries about deficit spending has focused mainly on the lack of consensus on how to deal with the national debt. Analysts and commentators often observe that survey respondents call for spending cuts in the abstract even while supporting current levels of spending on Medicare, Social Security, and other big-ticket items. Yet it is not surprising that when survey questions fail to explore tradeoffs, the answers reflect a lack of consistency or feasibility. Typically, pollsters do not follow up with the sort of inquiries that would clarify the apparent confusion. The Reason-Rupe poll, by engaging in those follow-ups, revealed a country very reluctant to raise taxes.

When presented with a series of tradeoffs between reducing spending and raising taxes (see Figure 2), the most popular policy prescription by far was spending cuts: Forty-five percent of people say Congress should bring down the debt by reducing spending without raising taxes. Another 16 percent favor reducing the debt primarily through spending cuts but are open to some tax increases; 14 percent prefer an equal emphasis on spending cuts and tax increases; 8 percent want to reduce the debt primarily through higher taxes with some spending cuts; and just 4 percent say current spending levels should be maintained while taxes should be raised. Only 1 percent of Americans say we should not do anything about the debt.

The Reason-Rupe poll included several open-ended questions that allowed respondents to voice concerns and share their own ideas. When asked to name the biggest problem facing America today, 30 percent said the economy, 23 percent emphasized jobs and unemployment, and 10 percent cited government spending, debts, and deficits.

When given the opportunity to name any government program they’d like to spend less money on, 22 percent of Americans suggested cutting military spending. Welfare (10 percent) and foreign aid (10 percent) were the other most frequently suggested cuts. Entitlements, which take up a huge and growing share of federal spending, came in at just 5 percent. (Another 5 percent said “everything.”) When asked to suggest what the government should spend more money on, 39 percent said education, 16 percent focused on helping the poor and needy, and 13 percent singled out health care.

On the taxation side, 56 percent of Americans support replacing the current complicated tax system with a flat tax. Forty-four percent also favor, while 36 percent oppose, giving up the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks if it results in a simpler system with lower overall tax rates. One tax change that respondents are against is a national sales tax; just 33 percent of Americans support substituting it for the federal income tax. When asked about the amount of federal, state, local, and property taxes they pay, 51 percent of Americans say they pay too much in taxes, 41 percent believe they pay about the right amount, and 4 percent think they pay too little.

Meanwhile, the poll numbers make it clear that taxpayers do not trust the federal government to live within its means (see Figure 3). A whopping 74 percent of Americans support a spending cap that would prohibit the government from spending more money than it takes in during any fiscal year. Only 19 percent oppose a government spending cap.

Not only do Americans distrust their government; they actively dislike it. Asked to rate Congress’ job performance, 61 percent of respondents said they disapprove, compared to just 17 percent who approve and 18 percent who say neither. When asked if they would be better off, worse off, or no different if Congress were in session only every other year, 42 percent said there would be no difference and 16 percent said they’d be better off; 36 percent thought they would be worse off. By a huge margin-61 percent to 25 percent-Americans think the country is headed in the “wrong,” not “right,” direction.

Politics and Philosophy

It’s not just politicians that voters dislike; it’s the two major parties that produce them. Asked which political party they trust to govern more responsibly, the leading answer was “neither,” at 35 percent, followed by Democrats at 31 percent and Republicans at 23 percent. Asked which political party they most closely identified with, 38 percent said Democratic, 31 percent said Republican, and 24 percent said “independent” or “no party.”

Meanwhile, a robust 60 percent of Americans say they would consider voting for an independent or third-party presidential candidate in the 2012 election, and 20 percent said they “might” consider doing so, compared to just 17 percent who said they would not. This willingness cuts across party lines: Eighty-nine percent of independents, 86 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of Democrats said they would or might consider candidates outside of the two major political parties.

To be clear, considering and voting are two very different things. The American electoral system has built-in barriers to independent or third-party challengers. Nevertheless, these numbers tell us something about the current political climate. They mean individuals are willing to at least consider candidates who do not necessarily fit within the cookie-cutter molds of traditional Democrats and Republicans.

What about libertarians? The survey asked about “overall political philosophy” and found that “libertarian” ranked fifth out of five. The breakdown was “conservative” (34 percent), “moderate” (28), “liberal” (15), don’t know/no response (11), “progressive” (7), then “libertarian” (5).

Some libertarian causes proved more popular than that, however. Forty-one percent of the country supports legalizing small quantities of marijuana for personal use, while 44 percent opposes legalization; 69 percent of Americans say each state should be allowed to regulate medical marijuana use within its borders. Given the ongoing federal raids on cannabis dispensaries in states where medical marijuana already has been legalized, plus pressure by the U.S. Department of Justice on states that are considering licensing and regulating dispensaries, this support for drug policy federalism could play an interesting role in 2012 politics.

The Reason-Rupe Poll is designed to track American public opinion in ways that flush out concerns not generally represented by the two major political parties, while creating reliable data sets for tracking opinion evolution over time. The full poll numbers cover views on government involvement in health care, education, energy, financial services, food and beverages, telecommunications, drugs, transportation, culture, and more. The Reason-Rupe poll will also ask questions in ways that present respondents with the same trade-offs faced by policy makers.

At a time when a Republican House of Representatives can’t succeed in cutting the debt, let alone the size of government, clear majorities of Americans across the political spectrum are treating the issue with considerable urgency. As the 2012 election campaign heats up, the wide gap between elected officials and their bosses, which we will continue to measure, could have important consequences.

For more information about the Reason-Rupe Polling Project, please contact Emily Ekins (, polling director at the Reason Foundation. This column first appeared at