Poll Shows Americans Shifting on Deficit-Reduction Approach

United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll finds support for deficit package that's two-thirds spending cuts and one-third tax hikes.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and demonstrators hold hands on Capitol Hill October 3, 2013 in Washington, DC, to protest cuts to Social Security. (National Journal)

When it comes to deficit reduction, Americans increasingly favor spending cuts over tax increases. But their greater openness carries a familiar warning: Reduce spending, but don't touch our favored entitlement programs.

Those findings from the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll indicate the public has cooled on further tax increases after this year's fiscal-cliff agreement to raise rates on individuals making $400,000 and families making $450,000. That's positive news for Republicans, who support deficit-reduction packages that skew heavily toward spending cuts.

A plurality of adults, 43 percent, support a deficit-reduction package that includes two-thirds spending cuts and one-third tax increases. Comparatively, only 12 percent said they preferred a plan with the reverse — two-thirds tax increases and one-third spending cuts. Thirty-one percent said they want a debt plan to include equal parts cuts and tax hikes,

That's a 12-point swing from a poll taken last year. Then, a proposal to raise taxes and cut spending had as much support as one that emphasized lowering spending — both received 38 percent. A plan that favored tax increases drew 16 percent support last year — 4 percent higher than now.

A growing reluctance to raise taxes was also evident with regard to specific tax deductions. In all four categories mentioned to respondents — home mortgages, state and local taxes, charitable donations, and employee health insurance exemptions — people were less inclined to reduce the deductions than last year. The shift was largest for the charitable deduction: 46 percent said lawmakers should not reduce the deduction at all, 9 points higher than the 37 percent who said so last year.

The tax-related poll results aren't all rosy for the GOP. Overall, most people supported additional tax revenue through reduced deductions: 30 percent of adults want the charitable deduction lowered for everyone, and 19 percent of them want it reduced for those making more than $250,000. Combined, that's still larger than the share of adults who want to keep the tax exemption as it is.

The results on entitlement programs present a familiar dilemma: The public wants to reduce the debt, but the programs that are the biggest drivers of the long-term deficit are also the ones they are least willing to cut. On Social Security, 76 percent of poll respondents say they don't want spending to be cut at all; just 21 percent say they want spending on the program to be reduced a lot or some. It's a similar story with Medicare: 81 percent oppose any cuts to it, while only 18 percent back reductions of any kind.

And when asked what they fear most about a deficit-reduction plan, a plurality of adults, 35 percent, said that it "would cut too much from government programs like Medicare and Social Security."

There is, however, one program the public is suddenly in favor of cutting: food stamps. More than half of adults, 56 percent, support some or a lot of cuts to the program — 42 percent say they don't want any cuts at all. That's a significant change since last February, when a National Journal poll found more people, 51 percent, said they didn't want to touch the food-stamp program. Support now is highest among whites, 61 percent of whom want to cut the program, including 20 percent who say they want deep cuts.

The survey suggests that a House Republican vote in September to cut billions in food-stamp funding, action critics regarded at the time as politically harmful, won't draw a backlash from voters.

A chunk of adults expressed concern that a deficit-reduction plan would either raise taxes too much or cut spending too little. The poll found 25 percent of people said they fear it would "raise taxes on people like you." Seventeen percent said they worried such a plan wouldn't reach its target for deficit reduction, while 14 percent are anxious it would "allow for too much federal spending in the next few years."

The current installment of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted Oct. 3-6 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults, half via cell phone, and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.