Think like voters on tax compromise

What have you learned today? Something, I suspect. I’m not talking about historical facts or how to change your car’s oil, knowledge stuff like that. I’m talking about opinions. Every day, we learn to like or dislike things. We discover what we value and don’t. It may be as mundane as delighting in a new gadget or as weighty as concluding that you don’t like your boss. Opinions are always evolving. So today’s public opinion is not necessarily tomorrow’s.

In polling, we acknowledge this every time we ask the question, “If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?” This might be asked a year, or even longer, in advance of an election. The query anticipates, or at least acknowledges, the possibility that the respondent’s opinions might change. But do pollsters and other pundits really spend enough time anticipating where public opinion may land 24 to 36 months from now? I don’t think so. We’re so caught up in the current moment that we’re not thinking one or two moves ahead.

Let’s use the current conflict over the budget compromise to project opinions that might evolve in voters’ minds. And in an even larger context, what do voters conclude from the long recession that will shape their opinions going forward?

Starting with that larger circumstance, the recession, research suggests that it has shaped opinions. First, there are obvious impacts. We value home and family more. We trust investments and money-changers less. These big values devolve to smaller impacts, like the unraveling of the notion that homeownership is the American Dream.

Many have learned that renting might be a more sensible option — financially and otherwise — after all. Who knows? Whereas the nation’s leaders courting public opinion once built a mighty bureaucracy to foster homeownership, those same leaders might now pivot to construct a new establishment that nourishes renters. The tax code could follow, evening out tax benefits of renting versus owning.

In a more elusive and ephemeral sense, the recession has made us all a little distrustful of things we never thought we’d distrust. The bank that seemed like Gibraltar was rendered sand. The 401(k) plan manager we thought bright has been shown to be a dolt. The car dealer down the road who promised lifetime service has vanished, along with the marque he sold. And we’ve had other non-economic shocks in this same timeframe, learning that we can’t trust Japanese car reliability as much as we once did, that we can’t shake the specter of terror attacks, that weather and other natural disasters don’t desist out of respect for our economic travails. And we’ve been reminded that politicians break promises. For Democrat supporters of Obama, the disappointments are many.

Yet we’re still standing, in spite of the distrust and anxiety that these events have visited upon us. I think that many of us, the survivors, have concluded that we’re tougher and more resilient than we thought. We might be more open to change, bolder in our responses to adversity, less fearful. In some sense, I think this evolution in thinking typifies many Tea Partiers. It explains how many 2008 Obama voters could vote for GOP congressional candidates in 2010. We don’t shrink from a challenge.

Some are saying that the proposed tax compromise is bad because it makes too much of the tax code too temporary, that it creates uncertainty. Perhaps Americans who have learned a lot about living with uncertainty since 2008 aren’t as troubled as we’d imagine by ambiguous tax burdens going forward. Perhaps they have learned that taxes should follow economic reality. If politicians would think more like voters on issues like this, they might be able to get ahead of the game.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.