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What Americans Think About The Fight Over The Debt Ceiling

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Democrats in Congress have their work cut out for them this fall. They were able to cut a deal with Republican lawmakers to avert a government shutdown, but when it comes to passing the rest of President Biden’s agenda, including both an ambitious $3.5 trillion spending plan and a bipartisan infrastructure deal, Democrats have much to sort out. It’s still too early to say how much jeopardy either bill is in — assessing Democratic intraparty divisions is difficult — but the fact that Senate Republicans have said they’ll refuse to help raise the debt ceiling creates a real legislative challenge for Democrats.

Earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. could run out of money as early as Oct. 18, making it impossible for the U.S. to pay its current financial obligations and creating a risk of debt default that she said would be a “calamity” for the economy. And because almost all Senate Republicans have indicated they won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling, they’ve now created a game of chicken in which they are arguing that Democrats alone must pass an increase through budget reconciliation, while Democrats counter that the GOP should join them in a bipartisan vote to raise it, which is generally how it used to work in the Senate.

Yet, at this point, a new poll from Politico/Morning Consult suggests public opinion may not push either party to change course, especially Republicans. Overall, 31 percent of registered voters said they would mostly blame Democrats if the country defaults on its debt, while 20 percent said they would primarily blame the GOP. However, the plurality (39 percent) said they would blame both parties equally, while 11 percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion.

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Americans are also torn on whether to raise the debt ceiling, even though there could be severely damaging ramifications for failing to raise it. A survey conducted earlier this week by The Hill/HarrisX found that 54 percent of registered voters opposed raising the cap, while 46 percent supported the raise. (The poll didn’t include some kind of “don’t know” option, which, as we’ll see, may be important.) Meanwhile, a weekly poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 34 percent of adults favored raising it and 32 percent opposed, with the remaining 34 percent undecided. In both surveys, Republicans were strongly opposed to raising the debt ceiling, while Democrats were about as strongly inclined to support an increase. Independents’ stance on the issue was murkier, but the polls suggested that these voters were slightly more opposed to raising the debt ceiling than they were supportive of it.

However, it’s likely that many Americans don’t understand what the debt ceiling is or what raising it entails. Consider the high share of respondents who said they were unsure in The Economist/YouGov’s survey. Part of what’s tricky here is the debt ceiling refers to debt and financial obligations the U.S. has already accrued — such as interest on the country’s debt or previously authorized spending, like Social Security benefits. That is, the debt limit is not a tool that authorizes new spending, as such expenditures are decided in completely separate legislation, like a bill for the next federal budget.

Nancy Pelosi leads a group of of Democrats walking down a hallway past some American flags.

related: Why House Democrats May Be More United Than They Seem Read more. »

Unfortunately, we don’t have recent polling that examines Americans’ understanding of the debt limit, but past polls back up the idea that many people don’t grasp what it is or what the risks are if it’s not increased. In a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, for instance, 42 percent of Americans correctly responded that a higher debt ceiling allowed the country to pay interest on its debt and spending that’s already been authorized, but 39 percent mistakenly said that the debt ceiling directly increased government spending and the amount of debt the U.S. holds. This survey also found plenty of uncertainty, as 20 percent said they weren’t sure what raising the debt ceiling meant. A poll by the Washington Post/Pew Research Center from 2011 — when the debt-ceiling debate was particularly fraught — also reflected a misunderstanding of the consequences of raising or not raising the debt limit. In the poll, more Americans were worried about what would happen if the debt ceiling was raised than if it wasn’t: 48 percent were more concerned that raising the debt ceiling would lead to more spending and debt, while 35 percent were more worried that not raising the cap would force a debt default and cause economic harm.

The political consequences of the public’s general lack of understanding are important, though, because it may guide the parties’ position on the debt ceiling. And Republicans may benefit the most, as their current opposition to raising the debt ceiling might be viewed by voters as part of their rejection of Democrats’ spending plans. This comes despite the fact that the debt-limit debate is about paying off existing financial obligations — like previously authorized spending and interest on debt accrued by past administrations from both parties — rather than any future obligations that the Democrats’ budget proposal might generate. Just how the debt-limit fight will sort itself out in the coming weeks is unclear, but should neither party blink or come to a bipartisan resolution, the country would enter uncharted territory, facing potentially disastrous financial fallout. And in that case, the question of which party is to blame might be a lot more complicated for voters.

Other polling bites

  • Over 650 people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 seeking to overturn the 2020 election have been arrested and charged. But as the FBI tries to identify more rioters, 48 percent of U.S. adults thought the penalties were not severe enough, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll that asked about the storming of the Capitol and the related House investigation. Yet, 57 percent of Republicans said there was already too much attention on Jan. 6, and Americans overall are unconfident in the investigation’s fairness, with a majority of Americans (54 percent) not too confident or not at all confident.
  • The Hispanic population represents 51 percent of the U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020, with 19 percent of the country now identifying as either Hispanic or Latino, according to data from the 2020 census. The majority of Hispanic Americans (54 percent) don’t have a preference on whether they describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino, according to Pew. However, when it comes to Latinx, only 3 percent of Hispanic Americans use the term and another 76 percent said they haven’t even heard of it.
  • On Tuesday, Pfizer and BioNTech submitted trial data on COVID-19 vaccine use in children ages 5 to 11 to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And this is good for some parents with kids under 12, as a recent Gallup poll found that 55 percent of these parents said they would vaccinate their kids pending the FDA’s approval. And as the delta variant continues to spread, 53 percent of parents of children under 18 were worried their child would contract the virus, and pluralities of parents of school-aged children said schools should require all students (47 percent) and teachers and staff (49 percent) to mask up.
  • The FDA approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 23, and according to a September survey from Gallup, 75 percent of U.S. adults said they were fully or partially vaccinated. And for the first time since Gallup began polling this question in January, a majority of Republicans (56 percent) were now fully or partially vaccinated. The share of vaccinated Republicans grew 6 percentage points since August. By comparison, 92 percent of Democrats were fully or partially vaccinated.
  • John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate, said every country needs to act fast on climate change in a recent interview with ABC News ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But a Pew survey of 17 countries found that people thought the world was doing O.K. on climate change. A median of 56 percent of people polled thought their own society was doing a good job handling global climate change. But that doesn’t mean they were confident that this action would make a difference. The same survey found that a median of 52 percent of those polled were not confident that efforts by the international community would significantly reduce the effects of climate change.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 44.8 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 48.6 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -3.8 points). At this time last week, 45.8 percent approved and 48.7 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -2.9 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 47.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 47.6 percent (a net approval rating of -0.7 points).

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Democrats currently lead Republicans by 3.3 percentage points (45.0 percent to 41.7 percent, respectively). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 2.7 points (44.4 percent to 41.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans by 3.4 points (43.8 percent to 40.4 percent).

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  1. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  2. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Mackenzie Wilkes was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.