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How Far Will Republicans Go to Avoid Defense Cuts?

One of the only negatives for Republicans in a debt ceiling deal that otherwise looks very favorable to them is the possibility of heavy cuts to defense spending. Roughly $600 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget would be “triggered” if Congress is unable to agree to the deficit-reduction recommendations made by a special Congressional Joint Committee.

Democratic lawmakers have argued that the defense cuts are likely to be an insufficient inducement for Republicans to consider raising taxes as part of the Joint Committee process. That would guarantee that at all $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction would be achieved through spending cuts of one kind or another.

So just what do Republicans think about defense cuts? Although some Tea Party-affiliated groups have taken a more tolerant attitude toward cuts in defense spending, they remain deeply unpopular with Republican-identified voters. A recent CNN poll found that just 29 percent of Republican voters would favor defense cuts as part of a debt ceiling deal. (Independent and Democratic voters differ: 50 and 56 percent of them favor defense cuts, respectively.)

The more relevant question, however, may be how Republicans regard defense cuts vis-a-vis tax increases, since that could be the choice put to them by the Joint Committee.

A Pew Poll conducted in May, which divided respondents into nine political typologies, has one take on this question. In that survey, just 28 percent of voters in Republican-affiliated groups favored cuts to defense spending as part of a deficit-reduction package. But even fewer Republicans — 19 percent — were comfortable with raising taxes.

The CNN survey, which asked about tax increases in more detail, comes up with a different answer. In that poll, a majority of Republican respondents were in favor of some specific types of tax increases. Some 51 percent of Republicans favored raising taxes on those making at least $250,000 per year as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, for example, while 65 percent favored increasing the taxes paid by oil and gas companies.

In short, as a philosophical matter, tax increases are probably even more anathema to Republican voters than defense cuts. But as a practical matter the reverse may be true.

Defense cuts aren’t unique in this regard. In general, spending cuts are preferred to tax increases in the abstract — but not once you start to get specific.

Not only were defense cuts objected to by large majorities of Republicans in the CNN poll, but so were cuts to Medicare (just 13 percent of Republicans were in favor) and to Social Security (18 percent in favor). Cuts to Medicaid, to farm subsidies, and to benefits for retired government workers were preferred to defense cuts — but were nevertheless opposed by a majority of Republican voters in the poll.

These sentiments extend even to voters who say they support the Tea Party. In the poll, 44 percent of Tea Party supporters were in favor of increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year. That compares to 38 percent of Tea Party voters who support cuts in defense spending and just 22 percent who said they favor Medicare cuts.

What the Republicans in Congress think, of course, may be an entirely different matter. Public opinion has so far had very little relationship to the choices that Washington has made in this debate.

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