Truth in Opinion

Jonathan Bernstein drops some knowledge on debt ceiling polling.  Basically, pre-debt-ceiling-battle, respondents will agree with abstract statements about matching debt-ceiling hikes dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts.  This is not necessarily a good predictor of how people will react should Republicans force a debt default because Democrats refuse to cut Social Security.

This is a factor of a few things.  One is specificity – while “cutting spending” is popular, specific spending cuts are generally not.  The Republicans will not be able to hold together on the debt ceiling unless they go balls-to-the-walls on this –  hitting the Sunday shows, grandstanding in Congress, endless CNN appearances, all threatening national default unless Democrats consent to their demands on cutting Social Security.  And they won’t be able to play the game of demanding Obama specify the cuts, because he has declined to do so and would be dumb to cede that ground.  In order to get their base appropriately riled up, they need to make demands and fight for them.  Perhaps Republicans think the terms of that fight favor them, but I doubt that.

More fundamentally, people are really bad at judging their future behavior.  I’m not an authority, but I did write my undergrad thesis on public opinion dynamics and I now do market research for my job. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that people are really crappy at predicting their future opinions and behavior.  Asking people today, with relatively leading wording, how they would react should the Republicans cause a debt default is a terrible predictor of how people would react should the Republicans cause a debt default.

Hopefully John Boehner is dropping surveys like that to fire up the troops and intimidate the Democrats, rather than as an expression of his actual beliefs.  Given his aversion from maximalism in confrontations before now, I’m guessing the former and I hope that I’m right.  Making overconfident predictions about a basically unthinkable action is the sort of thing that gets one into trouble.


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