By James D. Agresti
October 23, 2012
What do voters truly understand about public policy issues? To scientifically determine this, Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to researching and publishing verifiable facts about public policy, commissioned a nationwide poll of likely voters. The poll consisted of 20 key questions—two concerning voters’ political views and 18 dealing with their knowledge of public policy issues.
The questions were designed to identify fault lines between perception and reality across the political spectrum. Among the issues addressed are government spending, the national debt, taxes, healthcare, Medicare, global warming, pollution, and Social Security. For instance, voters were asked:
Do you think the federal government spends more money on social programs, such as Medicare, education, and food stamps … or does the federal government spend more money on national defense, such as the Army, Navy, and missile defense?
The poll found deep partisan divides, with both Romney and Obama voters being relatively more or less knowledgeable depending upon the questions. Overall, voters were poorly informed, and the majority gave the correct answer to only four of the 18 policy questions. These results provide ample evidence that voters may be casting their ballots based upon misconceptions.
The poll was conducted by Conquest Communications Group, a professional polling firm. The results were obtained through live telephone surveys of 500 likely voters across the continental United States on October 13-21, 2012. The margin of sampling error for all voters is +/- 4.5% with a 95% level of confidence. The questions and results are as follows.
Question 1: Do you believe that combined government spending at all levels—federal, state and local—now consumes a larger portion of the economy or a smaller portion of the economy than it did 10 years ago?
Correct Answer: A larger portion. Since 2009, combined government spending has been consuming more of the nation’s economy than ever recorded in the history of the U.S., including the peak of World War II. Correct answer given by 77% of all voters, 57% of Obama voters, and 94% of Romney voters.
Question 2: What about taxes, do you think combined federal, state, and local taxes now consume a larger portion of the economy or a smaller portion of the economy than they did 10 years ago?
Correct Answer: Smaller portion. Since 2009, combined federal, state, and local taxes have been a smaller portion of the economy than at any time since 1967. Still, these tax collections amounted to $3.8 trillion in 2011 or an average of $31,774 for every household in the U.S. Correct answer given by 19% of all voters, 38% of Obama voters, and 6% of Romney voters.
Question 3: Do you think the federal government spends more money on social programs, such as Medicare, education, and food stamps … or does the federal government spend more money on national defense, such as the Army, Navy, and missile defense?
Correct Answer: Social programs. In 2010, 61% of federal spending was on social programs, versus 22% for national defense. Fifty years ago, the opposite was true, and 53% of federal spending was for national defense, versus 23% on social programs. Correct answer given by 37% of all voters, 18% of Obama voters, and 57% of Romney voters.
Question 4: Would you say the earth is generally warmer than it was 30 years ago, cooler than it was 30 years ago, or about the same?
Correct Answer: Warmer. According to satellite measurements and ground-level thermometers, the earth’s average temperature has increased over the past 30 years by about 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. For reference, a temperature analysis of a glacier in Greenland found that the location was about 22ºF colder during the last ice age than it is now. Correct answer given by 53% of all voters, 82% of Obama voters, and 28% of Romney voters.
Question 5: Again, thinking about the whole planet, do you think the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms have increased over the past 30 years, decreased over the past 30 years, or stayed about the same?
Correct Answer: About the same. Data published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms is about the same as it was 30 years ago. Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 27% of Obama voters, and 60% of Romney voters.
Question 6: Now, just thinking about the United States, in your opinion, is the air generally more polluted than it was 30 years ago, less polluted, or about the same?
Correct Answer: Less polluted. Per EPA data, levels of criteria air pollutants have declined significantly over the past 30 years. The same is true for emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Correct answer given by 36% of all voters, 34% of Obama voters, and 41% of Romney voters.
Question 7: Which type of grocery bag do you think causes the least harm to the environment: Disposable paper bags, disposable plastic bags, or reusable cotton bags?
Correct Answer: Disposable plastic bags. In nine major environmental impact categories, disposable plastic grocery bags are better for the environment than paper bags. Likewise, cotton totes would have to be reused many more times than their expected life to have less environmental impact than disposable plastic bags. Correct answer given by 10% of all voters, 11% of Obama voters, and 10% of Romney voters.
Question 8: In general, who do you think receives a better return on the money they pay into Social Security: low-income workers or high-income workers?
Correct Answer: Low-income workers. People with lower incomes receive much higher ratios of annual benefits to taxes. Although wealthier men tend to live longer than poorer men, this does not make up for the difference in benefits, and it does not account for the fact that women (who typically earn lower incomes than men) tend to live longer than men. Also, people with higher incomes must pay taxes on their Social Security benefits, while people with lower incomes often receive refundable tax credits that effectively refund some or all of their Social Security taxes. Correct answer given by 39% of all voters, 28% of Obama voters, and 53% of Romney voters.
Question 9: Some people say that Social Security faces financial problems because politicians have looted the program and spent the money on other programs. Do you believe that statement is true or false?
Correct Answer: False. By law, all Social Security income can be used only for the Social Security program. The law also requires that any Social Security surpluses be loaned to the federal government, but the federal government is legally required to pay back this money to the Social Security program with interest. Nonetheless, even when this money is repaid, the Social Security Administration projects that the program’s trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, and the program will not have enough money to pay promised benefits every year for the foreseeable future. Correct answer given by 21% of all voters, 35% of Obama voters, and 11% of Romney voters.
Question 10: Some policymakers are proposing that individuals be allowed to save and invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal accounts instead of paying these taxes to the Social Security program. In your view, do you think such proposals generally improve or harm the finances of the Social Security program?
Correct Answer: Improve. Proposals to give Social Security an element of personal ownership are generally structured to strengthen the program’s finances. Although some tax revenues that would have gone to the program go to people’s personal retirement accounts instead, these tax revenues are more than offset by the savings of not paying these individuals full benefits. Correct answer given by 25% of all voters, 5% of Obama voters, and 47% of Romney voters.
Question 11: On average, who pays a greater portion of their income in federal taxes: The middle-class, the upper 1% of income earners, or do you think they both pay about the same portion of their income in federal taxes?
Correct Answer: The upper 1%. Per the Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimate of federal tax burdens, households in the middle 20% of the U.S. income distribution paid an effective tax rate of 11.1%, as compared to 28.9% for the top 1% of income earners. Correct answer given by 17% of all voters, 4% of Obama voters, and 31% of Romney voters.
Question 12: The federal government often gives special tax breaks to certain business sectors. Which business sector do you think pays a higher federal corporate income tax rate: Mining or educational services?
Correct Answer: Educational services. In 2009, out of 20 major business sectors, the effective corporate income tax rate averaged from as low as 16% for mining to as high as 34% for educational services. This disparity is a result of tax preferences. Correct answer given by 29% of all voters, 44% of Obama voters, and 19% of Romney voters.
Question 13: In 2003, Congress and President Bush passed a tax cut law that accelerated and expanded upon tax cuts they had passed a few years earlier. In the four years that followed this 2003 tax cut law, do you think federal revenues generally increased, declined, or stayed about the same?
Correct Answer: Increased. Federal revenues were 16.2% of the nation’s economy in 2003, 16.1% in 2004, 17.3% in 2005, 18.2% in 2006, and 18.5% in 2007. Federal data going back to 1950 shows that higher tax rates do not necessarily correspond with more tax revenues. Other factors, such as the health of the economy, also have a major impact on tax revenues. Correct answer given by 28% of all voters, 12% of Obama voters, and 46% of Romney voters.
Question 14: Most of the Bush tax cuts are due to expire at the end of 2012. If Congress and the President decide to make these tax cuts permanent, do you think in future years that average Americans will pay less of their income in federal taxes than they have on average for the past 40 years, more of their income in taxes, or about the same?
Correct Answer: About the same. The Congressional Budget Office projects that if most of the Bush tax cuts and even some of the Obama tax cuts are renewed, federal revenues will reach their historical average in two years and stay level thereafter. This is partly because many tax laws are not indexed for wage growth and some are not indexed for inflation, which causes taxes to continually consume a greater share of Americans’ income unless tax laws are changed. This is a phenomenon called bracket creep. Correct answer given by 27% of all voters, 26% of Obama voters, and 29% of Romney voters.
Question 15: In 1960, governments paid for 24% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you think government now pays a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.?
Correct Answer: A greater portion. Between 1960 and 2009, the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid by government increased from 24% to 48%. This is one of the primary drivers of increased healthcare spending, because when people don’t personally pay for their healthcare, they are less likely to be responsible consumers and more likely to use services that have no measurable benefit to their health. Correct answer given by 56% of all voters, 53% of Obama voters, and 64% of Romney voters.
Question 16: In 1960, private insurance paid for 21% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you believe private insurance now pays a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.?
Correct Answer: Greater. The same trend that applies to government also applies to private insurance. Between 1960 and 2009, the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid by private insurance increased from 21% to 32%. This trend has been driven by federal tax policy, which makes employer-provided health insurance generally exempt from federal taxes but not most medical expenses paid directly by consumers. Between 1960 and 2009, the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid directly by consumers decreased from 48% to 12%. Correct answer given by 41% of all voters, 37% of Obama voters, and 48% of Romney voters.
Question 17: Do you think that preventative medical care generally increases or decreases people’s lifetime medical costs?
Correct Answer: Increases. Repeated studies have shown that preventative medical care generally increases overall healthcare costs. As explained by the Congressional Budget Office, “Although different types of preventive care have different effects on spending, the evidence suggests that for most preventive services, expanded utilization leads to higher, not lower, medical spending overall.” Correct answer given by 23% of all voters, 16% of Obama voters, and 28% of Romney voters.
Question 18: In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” This law uses price controls to save money in the Medicare program. Do you think these price controls will affect Medicare patients’ access to care?
Correct Answer: Yes. As explained by Medicare’s actuaries, the Affordable Care Act’s price controls will cut Medicare prices for many medical services over the next three generations to “less than half of their level under the prior law.” The program’s actuaries have been clear that this will likely cause “withdrawal of providers from the Medicare market” and “severe problems with beneficiary access to care.” Correct answer given by 56% of all voters, 23% of Obama voters, and 86% of Romney voters.
This is the first poll of voter knowledge commissioned by Just Facts, and plans are in place to conduct such polls on an annual basis. Politicians and the press regularly inundate Americans with information about public policy, but as this poll has found, the end result is that voters are ill-informed. Just Facts aims to correct this by providing voters with documented facts that empower them to make truly informed decisions.
The margin of error for Obama voters is +/- 7.2%, and the margin of error for Romney voters is +/- 6.9%. The number of undecided voters or those planning to vote for other candidates are too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions. The poll results for all voters are available here, and the results broken down by political views, age, and gender are available here.