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Beware ‘Mission Accomplished’ on Budget Debate

The consensus of political reporters — including yours truly — was that Republicans were taking a significant risk by voting for Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Mr. Ryan’s plan contains some potentially unpopular elements, such as significant reforms and cutbacks to Medicare and Medicaid, and a reduction in tax rates for high-income earners. President Obama critiqued the proposal — although without mentioning Mr. Ryan’s name — in his address on the budget two weeks ago. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already running commercials on the subject, claiming that Republicans have “voted to end Medicare”.

So far, however, public opinion seems to be unmoved. In a Gallup poll released this morning, 44 percent of respondents said they preferred President Obama’s budget plan, versus 43 percent who said they preferred Mr. Ryan’s Republican approach.

If these numbers hold, this is good news for the Republicans. Mr. Ryan’s budget — while not exactly popular on its own terms — will have accomplished some other objectives for the party, such as placating Tea Party supporters and shifting the ideological goalposts on the welfare state.

But Republicans ought to be careful about declaring “Mission Accomplished”.

What polls like Gallup’s seem to reflect is the overall partisan split in the country. In the poll, 44 percent said they preferred Mr. Obama’s budget approach. That is identical to Mr. Obama’s average approval rating — also 44 percent — in Gallup’s polling over the past three weeks.

The same is true of the demographic splits in the poll. Some commentators have noted, for instance, that Mr. Ryan’s budget leads Mr. Obama’s in polling among seniors, despite the cuts it would entail to entitlement programs. But this pattern tracks with overall approval of President Obama, which is lower among seniors. In fact, seniors are slightly more inclined to support Mr. Obama’s budget plan than Mr. Obama himself, although the differences are not statistically meaningful.

What analysts need to keep in mind is that the budget fight is still in the first round of a scheduled twelve-round bout. Right now, the public is paying very little attention to domestic politics, a refreshing break from the frenetic pace of the past few years.

That will change, however, as we move closer to the 2012 elections. Democrats and Republicans will engage one another on the budget proposals on at least several occasions in the upcoming months: at a minimum, when the Senate votes on Mr. Ryan’s plan (as now seems likely in the next few weeks), in the debate over the federal debt ceiling later this spring, and in the debate over the 2012 budget in the fall.

As these debates evolve, and voters learn more about the proposals, opinion may detach from its partisan moorings, and independent voters may begin to take sides. (So far, a relatively high 17 percent of independents are undecided as to which approach they prefer.)

What Democrats will be banking on is numbers like the ones released recently by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm. In that poll, voters were initially asked about a Republican proposal that would “cut 6.2 trillion dollars from the federal budget”. They favored it by a 48-33 split.

When voters were read a fuller description of the proposal, however — which is replicated below — opinion shifted fairly dramatically against it, with 36 in favor but 56 percent opposed.

The plan cuts 6.2 trillion dollars below the president’s budget and reduces the debt as a percentage of the economy. It makes small cuts in defense spending. It cuts spending for domestic programs in the coming year by 72 billion dollars, almost 20 percent, and freezes it for five years. It repeals the new health care bill and the new Wall Street reform law, makes major cuts of almost 800 billion dollars to Medicaid and Medicare for seniors over the next ten years. Starting in 2022, new retirees will no longer get health coverage through Medicare, but instead will get a voucher that will partially pay for insurance they purchase from private health insurance companies. The proposal cuts taxes for corporations and people making over 370 thousand dollars a year.

The Democracy Corps poll also conducted another experiment, in which voters were read a series of arguments for and against the proposal, arguments that resembled those that Democrats and Republicans might make on the campaign trail. After hearing those arguments, 51 percent of voters were opposed to Mr. Ryan’s proposal — including 36 percent who were strongly opposed — against 44 percent in favor.

Democrats ought not to be overly sanguine about these results. In the debate over their health care bills in 2009 and 2010, voters took their side on many of the plan’s individual provisions, but nevertheless disliked the bill as a whole. It’s possible that this debate follows a similar trajectory, and the Democrats will win some debating points but not control the overall message.

The health care bill, however, took some time to become unpopular. It was initially supported by a plurality of the public before the numbers flipped in roughly August 2009, which coincided with the town hall forums that were held all over the country that summer.

That may be a good yardstick for Democrats this time around: what the numbers look like by August or September, after the Congress has gone back home and debated the proposals with their constituents. If the polls haven’t moved at least a little bit toward Democrats by then, it may be time for pundits to eat a little crow and re-consider their initial assumptions about the popularity of the proposals.

Until then, Republicans ought to be careful about digging their heels in on Mr. Ryan’s plan.

The presence of a presidential race could make the issue especially tricky to navigate for Republicans. On one hand, if Republican candidates distance themselves from Mr. Ryan’s proposal, it will cut the legs out from their Congressional candidates, almost all of whom have already voted for it. On the other hand, if they double down and voice their full support, they ought to hope they are reading the public’s mood correctly, or they could lose the House in addition to the presidency.

The highest risk and highest reward would come if Mr. Ryan himself were the nominee, a prospect that conservative commentators are increasingly speculating about. I would not rule out the possibility that a candidate like Mr. Ryan could make a late entry into the race. Although there is relatively little recent precedent for a candidate entering the primaries without having spent months or years preparing to do, there is also little recent precedent for Republicans being as dissatisfied with the field as they are with this one. If a candidate like Donald Trump can surge in the polls by making a few quips about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, perhaps one like Mr. Ryan or Chris Christie can do the same by bringing the same energy but more substance to the table.

The other possibility is that the budget debate makes both President Obama and the Republican Congress less popular. The Gallup poll forces respondents to pick one of the two budget proposals — but voters have another option in the real world, which is to throw out all the bums out.

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have sagged — but so have John Boehner’s, and Democrats have erased their deficit with Republicans on the generic Congressional ballot. The possibility that Democrats could simultaneously lose the White House and take control of the Congress is still quite remote, but the odds are shortening.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.