Shutdown won’t top the polls

With the trains rolling toward a collision on the budget and a federal government shutdown looming, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the budget and deficit will become dominant issues in this election cycle? Won’t budget concerns easily eclipse the social issues (which I predicted last week will soon rise) when Americans set their agenda for 2012? Might the deficit even overtake jobs and unemployment to become the reigning “most important issue”?

To all these suppositions, I respond with an unequivocal no. Debt and deficits, even with a government shutdown, just won’t become agenda-toppers in the polls.

Those predicting a huge impact on public opinion stemming from a government shutdown frequently point to a few opinion polls conducted in late 1995 and early 1996 showing that congressional leaders’ favorable name ID declined during the skirmishing. But they cannot demonstrate that government debt, the deficit or the shutdown became agenda-topping issues, because they weren’t, at least for more than a few weeks. And the controversy really didn’t whack the parties. A Gallup poll reported that Republican favorability in January 1996, right after the shutdown dust-up, was 61 percent, way better than the 47 percent Gallup reported for the GOP last month. Democrat numbers were comparable. 

There are several reasons that budget issues don’t ring the bell for more that a handful of voters. (The week before last, only 7 percent told CBS News pollsters that it’s our country’s most important problem.) The first is the problem of innumeracy. Only a few Americans do trillions. Most of us are mathematically challenged when it comes to conceptualizing even hundreds of billions. These are just numbers that we can’t get our minds around. At best, it’s just “a whole lot of money,” and saying that we’ve gone from debts of millions to billions to trillions doesn’t raise the emotional ante commensurately for most Americans. We understand 10 percent unemployment and 30 percent increases in healthcare costs, but a debt of trillions is beyond our numerical comprehension.

A second reason that the government’s financial floundering won’t be a poll-buster is that a shutdown won’t surprise anyone in a public that has been digesting bad financial news for more than a year. The only question might be what took the feds so long. Everyone else has been experiencing financial turmoil. Why not Washington? Most state governments have experienced budget woes and cutbacks in public employment. Welcome to our world, D.C.

A related reason that the impact of a deficit mess, including a shutdown, won’t be terribly salient is that no one thinks there is a solution to the problem, certainly not a partisan political one. If voters really thought that either the GOP or Democrats had a viable response, they might focus more on the topic. But believing as they do that no one in D.C. knows the way out of this maze, they choose to concentrate on other topics, like their own family’s financial circumstances. Obama’s so-called debt commission was an attempt to circumvent this phenomenon, having someone or something we could trust make an objective, trustworthy set of recommendations. That obviously was a bust.

Unless the federal government totally shuts down for months or stops cutting Social Security checks, the public will just yawn. Look at what happened in California. Teachers and state creditors were given IOUs by the state in 2009. Yet the budget and debt never took top-dog status on the issue totem. Jobs dominated in 2010, and voters reelected the Democrats who created the unpayable debts. It’s not that California voters were endorsing Democrat profligacy, but rather that the electorate simply cares more about other issues than it does about state debt. The rest of America will imitate that behavior in 2011 and 2012.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.