Public polls fail us on sequester

The public polling community is letting us down with generally sketchy work on the sequester. We are going down a dark path we have never traveled before, and none of the surveillance I have seen prepares us for the event and public reactions. With some exceptions, the public polls seem hell-bent on prosecuting a few narrow debating points. They want us to know that the congressional Republicans will be blamed more than President Obama, though the impact of any blame is never really metered. The public polls also are trying to demonstrate broad sentiment for a delay in any cuts. In a similar vein, the public pollsters are pushing the theme of balance in tax hikes and spending cuts to fix the budget. These bits and pieces are such a small part of the reality of public opinion about the sequester that we’re left knowing too little to predict much about the public’s response if the deal actually ever goes down.

Let’s start with one big hitch that immediately creates a challenge for pollsters. There is an empty-heads problem. A Pew poll completed just over a week ago found that only 27 percent of Americans said they knew “a lot” about “automatic spending cuts to occur on March 1.” This is roughly one-half as many poll respondents as told Pew interviewers in July 2011 that they knew a lot about the comparable government default issue before the debt-limit deal of that year. The latest 2013 figure is just not enough to matter. There’s simply insufficient knowledge of this sequester to constitute a factual platform from which alarmists can launch a wave of paranoia. Before they can scare anyone, they have to give the facts.

In the meanwhile, voters get distracted by real life and aren’t focusing when the warnings of impending doom are finally issued. Obama can stand there all day trying to scare people with apocalyptic warnings of air travel delays, but they just aren’t listening. Blah, blah, blah — just another politician talking stuff.

This doesn’t discourage the pollsters, though. Immediately after asking whether voters are attuned to the issue, and discovering they are not, Pew went right ahead in the next question and asked whether the automatic cuts should be delayed, or whether they should be allowed to go into effect. The response was split, with 49 percent favoring delay and 40 percent ready to forge ahead. Given the lack of prior information and the weak pushback, it’s unfathomable that public indignation will stop the sequester from occurring.

Given that Pew was more honest than most public pollsters in their approach to this topic, and because that organization is generally “best in breed” when it comes to thoughtful public polls, it’s not easy to critique them here. But there are too many questions they didn’t pose that should have been asked. So how seriously are we supposed to take their insights on public opinion about the sequester? Why did they not ask whether they knew that the president and Congress previously signed off on this plan? Why were poll respondents not asked whether granting a delay is likely to ever result in any compromise between the two warring parties? Giving these uninformed respondents a few cues as to the realities of background and alternatives to this sequester could well have led to different opinions, but we won’t know.

The other missing element here is that no one asks practically anything about the legitimacy of cutting federal spending. It’s as if the public pollsters have accepted as valence the inherent value of the budgetary status quo. Voters think we need cuts. I know they do. I allow them to tell me this. But the public pollsters evidently just don’t want to hear of it.

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