Spread the wealth? What Americans think

Economy, Politics, Presidential Elections, US Economy, US Elections, US Politics

In my post, after the third presidential debate, about McCain’s efforts to make “spreading the wealth around” sound like the most ominous thing, I quoted Ezra Klein as saying that “for most folks, spreading the wealth around probably seems like a good idea” right now.

This is correct, Brian Schaffner of the CCPS argued yesterday at his new home on pollster.com. Taking as lead how the ABC/WaPo poll hasn’t shown any movement this month on the question which candidate is trusted more on the question of taxes, he digs up data showing so from a 2003 survey conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government.

Moreover, in case you’re feeling doubtful about those sponsors, the same thing is largely confirmed by Gallup data, which the polling firm’s in-depth look at the issue on Thursday revealed.

Schaffner argues that the McCain camp’s insistence that Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on the top 5% of income-earners smacks of class struggle and socialism doesn’t drill into much of a popular perception. It isn’t surprising “that McCain hasn’t gotten much traction by criticizing the fact that Obama wants to increase taxes for high income Americans,” Schaffner writes, because the 2003 survey actually showed that most Americans believe “high income people pay less than their fair share”. Over 60% of Independents, over 70% of Democrats and even a plurality of Republicans  agreed. Barely over 10% of independents and some 30% of Republicans, on the other hand, thought that high income people “pay more than their fair share”:

The Gallup polling data doesn’t directly address the question whether wealthy Americans pay enough taxes, but it does show a majority of Americans believing that “the distribution of money and wealth in this country” isn’t “fair”. Throughout intermittent polls in the last twenty-odd years, an ample majority opined that wealth should be “more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people,” while just 27-37% believed that the current distribution is fair:

Two details strike me in this graph. The opinion that “spreading the wealth around” seems like a good idea isn’t just something that’s coming up “right now”, in the face of a financial crisis; it’s actually been pretty consistent through the years. But there’s two kinds of variations over time.

At times of economic trouble, the opinion becomes a bit more wide-spread still (1990, 2007-2008). But agreement dipped quite sharply twice, both times during a presidential election campaign (September 2000 and this month). That suggests that McCain may not be drilling into much of a popular consensus, but ragging on the subject does help Republican candidates rile up enough of their own partisan base to polarise opinions more on the mater. Which can’t help in appealing to independents, but must help in mobilising conservative voters.

The Gallup data confirm a sharp partisan split on the question. By over 2:1, Republicans think the distribution of wealth in America is fair; Democrats, conversely, overwhelmingly believe it should be more evenly distributed. But notably, Independent voters clearly side with the Democrats on this, answering almost 2 to 1 that it should be more evenly distributed among more people.

When the question is essentially rephrased to emphasise the redistributionist role of the government in taxation, opinions become more divided. Overall, in the 2003 survey, “37% of registered voters strongly disagreed .. while 28% strongly agreed” that “it is the responsibility of government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and people with low incomes,” with the rest evenly divided. But in two important ways, McCain is just preaching to the choir with his message on this question.

What Schaffner’s graph on this question shows is mostly that passions run high among Republicans on this question: some 55% of them “strongly disagreed”. Among independent voters, however, about a third each strongly agreed or strongly disagreed.

The same goes, unsurprisingly, for class. In their choice of rhetorics and by trotting out Joe the Plumber, Tito the Builder and all their counterparts, McCain and Palin have strongly framed this issue as a question of standing up for those hard-working white working class voters Hillary famously evoked, who didn’t want their hard-earned dollars to be taken and given to the poor by the government. (At TNR, John Judis, Noam Scheiber and Chris Orr have argued that McCain has effectively been playing the “welfare queen” argument and playing in on racial resentments with their rhetorics on this question). But when Schaffner splits off the data for white voters, specifically, he finds that the McCain argument here appeals overwhelmingly to the upper income earners, and not the working class:

Nearly 70% of [white voters making more than $150,000 per year] strongly disagrees that the government should be reducing income disparities. However, among whites making less than $75,000 per year, [..] voters are just as likely to strongly support a tax system that reduces income disparities as they are to strongly oppose it. Likewise, 64% of these voters said that high income people do not pay their fair share in taxes. The problem for McCain becomes even more pronounced since there are about three times as many whites making less than $75,000 per year as making more than $150,000.

If you already consider those numbers hopeful, check out Gallup’s numbers. Gallup essentially hypercharges the question of government-enforced redistribution. In a question first formulated in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Gallup asks respondents to agree or disagree with a position arguably far more radical than Obama’s current stance:

The question is phrased as follows: “People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don’t. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” [..]

The question phrase “heavy taxes on the rich” is certainly not one the Obama campaign would choose to describe its plan, which Obama repeatedly says would return high income tax rates only back to where they were under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, before the Bush administration tax cuts. Still, the question generally addresses the basic issue of taxing high-income individuals to transfer wealth in a society.

Despite the strong wording of the question, Gallup finds the same even split that’s suggested in the numbers Schaffner quoted:

Gallup concludes:

[I]n each of the four times Gallup has asked this question in recent years, between 45% and 51% of Americans have gone so far as to agree with the fairly harsh-sounding policy of “redistribut[ing] wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

[T]he trend lines at least suggest that Americans are currently as willing as, if not more willing than, they were during the Depression to sanction the use of taxes on the rich as a mechanism for redistributing wealth.

The partisan breakdown on this question is almost wholly symmetrical. Three-quarters of Democrats agree, four out of five Republicans disagree, and Independents are split evenly, suggesting that McCain’s rhetorics on this would put off as many independents as it would attract:

On the basis of the answers to the two questions, Gallup divides respondents in three groups: strong redistributionists, non-government redistributionists (who believe wealth should be spread more evenly but disagree with heavy taxes on the rich), and anti-redistributionists. Strong redistributionists make up 41% of the voters, while anti-redistributionists make up just 32%.

In short, if McCain’s warnings about socialism were meant to reach out to floating voters, it was a misguided strategy. More likely, however, it was intended to shore up McCain’s base support; to rally his own side to the polls, rather than to expand his appeal.

In that sense it’s right in line with the rest of McCain’s campaign. If he loses the elections, it will be this strategy that’ll be pointed out by all but rock-ribbed conservatives as the place he went wrong.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jes Mi  •  Nov 2, 2008 @5:16 am

    After so many decades of seeing the fat-cats donating zillions to Republicans, who were then able to outspend Democrats by 2, 3, even 4-to-1 on election advertising, it is sooooo much more than amusing to hear McCain & the Repub’s whining about being “overspent” in this election.

    Of course, the real irony is that they’re STILL getting the fat-cat money– but this time, the “little guys” (like me) have donated enough to Obama to compensate. That may be the ONE “good” thing about the Bush legacy– his reign has been so disasterous, that people really do want change. Real change, not just changing the name of the bungler.

    And thank God for that… because, scary as Grumpy Gramps is, the worst of it is that he’s 72, and obviously doesn’t handle stress very well. His so-called “qualified” VP choice is the most frightening aspect of the whole campaign. The thought of li’l miss “the Iraq war is a gift from God”, and “Jesus is coming for us any day now” being in charge of the most powerful (nuclear, not “noo-kyuh-ler”) arsenal the world has ever known is enough to put me off my kibbles for the whole year.

    And when oh when will lower and middle-class America wake up and realize that this whole trickle-down rationalization used by rich Republicans to back-scratch their even richer supporters is just pure HOGWASH???

    I for one am getting damned tired of being “trickled” on by these rich jerks who are getting nothing but richer and lounging in ever more tax breaks, while the rest of the country is in foreclosure and going down the tubes.

    The right wing always knee-jerks the old “it’s the Democratic congress’ fault” response… but this is flatly, and provably wrong. Without a veto-proof majority in both houses, it is nearly impossible to defeat entrenched, partisan policy– no matter how obviously corrupt.

    And regardless of their “tax-and-spend lib’rels” rant routines, even when Republicans have been in total charge of both elected branches of government they have never reduced federal spending. Never. This includes the now mythological Reagan years, the first six of which featured Republican control of both congressional houses. That was when the national debt really started to skyrocket– into the hundreds of billions. And both Republican administrations since have done nothing but top that record. Oh, they talk about cutting spending a lot, but they never, ever deliver.

    Calling themselves “fiscal conservatives” is a pathetic joke. Here’s a question for you– who was the last full-term Republican president that actually managed to even almost balance the budget, and who DIDN’T break all previous records for the sky-high national debt?

    I’ll give you some hints:
    They never mention him in their campaign adds….
    He gave a famous speech which is now named after a dog….
    He once said, on national television, that he was “not a crook”….
    His last name rhymes with “Dickson”……………….

    Anyone getting warm?

    And the fact that McCain–a man with a known history of adultery, and frolicking on yachts with criminals like Charles Keating– would have the temerity to harass Obama for “past associations” (let alone judgment) only proves how hypocritical and desperate McCain and the Republicans have gotten. Barry Goldwater must be spinning in the grave….