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The GOP Tax Cuts Are Even More Unpopular Than Past Tax Hikes

Senate Republicans’ effort to pass tax reform is at a crucial juncture. As some senators waffle on whether to support the bill, they may want to spare a glance toward public opinion: Poll after poll shows that more voters than not are opposed to their efforts. In fact, the GOP bill is one of the least popular tax plans since Ronald Reagan’s day.

About a third of voters currently support the Republican tax reform package, according to an average of five surveys released1 this month. In a Quinnipiac University survey, just 25 percent of voters approved of the plan. Surveys from ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, Morning Consult and YouGov put approval of the plan slightly higher, but all are still at 36 percent or lower. Meanwhile, an average of the five polls puts opposition at 46 percent.

Why is support so low? Americans are opposed to the bill because they think it disproportionately benefits the rich. (It likely will.) President Trump’s administration has argued, however, that there were similar complaints about the Reagan tax cut plan of 1981, which preceded an economic boom.

The Reagan plan, though, was far more popular in 1981 than the current Republican plan is now. In a Gallup survey taken in the days after Reagan signed his tax cuts into law on Aug. 13, 1981, 51 percent of Americans were in favor of it. Just 26 percent of Americans were opposed. The other major tax cut of the Reagan administration (signed in 1986) wasn’t nearly as popular, but it was still more popular than the current GOP legislation. A CBS News/New York Times survey conducted in the days after the bill passed Congress found 38 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed.

Indeed, major tax cut plans are usually more popular than unpopular. Heck, even some tax hikes have been more popular than the current GOP bill.2

The GOP’s tax bill is historically unpopular
APPROVE
YEAR POLLSTER TAX BILL YES NO DIFF.
1981 Gallup Reagan tax cut I 51% 26% +25
2001 Harris W. Bush tax cut I 49 37 +12
2010 ABC/WaPo Extending Bush tax cuts I 54 42 +12
2013 ABC/WaPo Extending Bush tax cuts II 45 38 +7
2003 Harris W. Bush tax cut II 45 39 +6
1986 CBS/NYT Reagan tax cut II 38 34 +4
1993 Gallup Clinton tax hike 34 44 -10
1990 Voter News Service H.W. Bush tax hike 41 52 -11
2017 November average* Trump tax cut 32 46 -14

*Average of surveys by CNN, Quinnipiac University, Morning Consult, ABC/WaPo and YouGov.
Note: The polls included in this table used different question wording, including variations on “support,” “approve” and “favor,” as well as “oppose” “disapprove” and “vote down.”

George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cut plan, for example, had approval and disapproval numbers that were basically the reverse of the 2017 Republican tax plan. A May 2001 Harris Interactive poll taken just before the bill passed showed 49 percent of Americans in favor and 37 percent opposed. Two years later, a May 2003 Harris Interactive poll put Bush’s 2003 tax cut plan at 45 percent support to 39 percent opposition just before its passage. And when President Barack Obama signed a bill temporarily extending these Bush tax cuts in December 2010, 54 percent of Americans supported that decision compared to 42 percent who opposed it, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll.

Basically, none of these major tax cuts were net unpopular, as the current GOP bill is. Instead, the current Republican plan’s polling numbers look more similar to those of past tax hikes.

Political junkies may remember when President George H.W. Bush promised in his 1988 campaign not to raise taxes. So when he did sign a tax hike, it didn’t go over well. After he agreed on the eve of the 1990 midterm election to a compromise budget that raised taxes to decrease the deficit, just 41 percent of voters approved of the plan to 52 percent who disapproved, according to the networks’ midterm exit poll. Two years later, Bill Clinton used Bush’s flip-flop against him in Bush’s unsuccessful bid for re-election.

Clinton himself signed a tax increase into law in 1993. That bill passed by a hair, thanks to Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky voting “yes” despite understanding it could be the end of her political career. Just a few days before it passed, a Gallup poll found that 34 percent of Americans approved of the bill compared to 44 percent who wanted it voted down. Margolies-Mezvinsky indeed went on to lose her seat in 1994, and while we can’t say it was solely because of her vote, it probably didn’t help her — or Democrats in general, as the party lost control of the House that year.

Now, it’s far from clear that Republicans will suffer a 2018 fate similar to the one Democrats met in 1994, even if the GOP passes its tax reform package. One reason Republicans might not be penalized is that taxes do not currently rank highly on the list of issues that voters think are the most important problems facing the country.

Still, Republicans could help their chances if they amend their package to make it focus more on the middle class. A majority of Americans want a middle-class tax cut, and recent history shows that Americans are willing to reward a deal in which Republicans compromise. In 2013, when congressional Republicans and Obama agreed to a deal that, among other provisions, permanently extended the Bush tax cuts for everyone except individuals making more than $400,000 and families making more than $450,000, 45 percent of Americans approved of the deal compared to 38 percent who disapproved, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Of course, if Republicans pass their current package without major amendments, expect a lot of Democrats to use that vote against them in the upcoming midterms.

Footnotes

  1. The most recently conducted poll from each pollster.

  2. Note, some of these surveys were taken immediately after these tax cuts or hikes were signed into law. It’s possible that the current GOP tax plan will become more popular if it passes, though we have no reason to believe it will.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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