“Experiment is the sole source of truth. It alone can teach us something new; it alone can give us certainty.”

Henri Poincaré

What Debt Message Works Best?

An online PocketTrial® experiment testing the impact of conservative debt/deficit messages on weak partisan & pure independent voters.

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Winning the Debt Messaging War

Independent Women’s Voice commissioned Evolving Strategies to run a PocketTrial® online survey experiment testing eight conservative messages on the national deficit and debt (see full report here). A PocketTrial® quantifies the true impact of a message using a customized, double-blind, and fully controlled experimental design. It’s like a small-scale clinical drug trial, but it’s a message we’re testing.

Many politicians favor talking about the debt in terms of stealing from our children. Others talk in terms of specific budget or pro-growth proposals to address the problem; freezing the budget, cut-cap-and-balance legislation and amendments, entitlement reforms, and pro-growth tax reforms. And still others speak about the debt in terms of free-market values vs. an over-grown and stultifying federal government, or in terms of our National Security should our creditors leverage our debt against us.

But what message is really most effective at increasing support for spending cuts to reduce the deficit and national debt? Which argument works best, and with which swing voters? How do arguments on the debt impact the political landscape, support for Democrats and Republicans?

To answer these questions, we ran a PocketTrial® online survey experiment exposing more than 4,600 registered, pure independents and weak partisans – no strong Republicans or Democrats – to one of eight Conservative messages on the debt and deficit crisis and a comprehensive Progressive message or a Control group (fielded February 10th – 20th). All Conservative messages were tested alone as well as in combination with the Progressive message (the Progressive message was also tested alone).

Policy Impacts

To generate public support among potential swing voters for broad spending constraints, IWV discovered that two messages stand out as particularly helpful:

  • Obama’s ads increase his vote by about 6 points on average - a 15% bump in Obama’s vote.
  • For all discretionary spending, speak in terms of “spending the same” next year as we did this year, just like a family facing financial concerns would choose to do.
  • Have a strong message on the need to reform entitlements to make them sustainable.

Unfortunately, trying to fight all spending is a fool’s errand. The research found that no messages curbs enthusiasm for so-called “good spending,” such as education, workforce development, infrastructure, and green technology.

Americans want to get the budget under control, but they still overwhelmingly support certain “good” kinds of government spending. And it is difficult to undermine that support. (This may be a factor of respondents thinking that if we eliminate wasteful spending we have more resources to apply to “good” programs.)

So what are the most popular – and most easily promoted – policies for shrinking the budget?

  • Obama’s ads increase his vote by about 6 points on average - a 15% bump in Obama’s vote.
  • Freezing discretionary spending
  • Reforming entitlements through means testing

The current “sequester” debate provides an opportunity to focus attention away from un-winnable disputes over “good” spending and shift the conversation to the common-sense idea that government cannot always grow (surely we can hold spending to the same levels of last year).

Doing so will allow conservatives and Republicans to focus attention on what the public widely recognizes as the real driver of our debt problems — our entitlement programs. A message focused on entitlement reform advances both an important policy cause and yields significant political benefits.

Political Impacts

While the “just spend the same next year” message is very effective at increasing public support for overall budget constraints among both men and women, (and eliminates the need to dwell on specific cuts), it doesn’t have any significant effect on a respondent’s support for Republicans.

Three messages stand out as very effective in boosting support for Republicans, although they don’t significantly undermine support for Democrats:

  • “Economic growth,”
  • “Stealing from our children,” and
  • “General” debt messages

While all three are very effective at boosting support for Republicans, the “economic growth” message is particularly effective at increasing support for Republicans among both men and women. The entitlement message is an all-around winning strategy. It increases support for broad budget constraints (6-points) and significantly boosts support for serious entitlement reform (8-points), especially among men (13-points).

And contrary to what many Republicans assume, it is actually very effective at undermining support for Democrats and somewhat effective at boosting support for Republicans. The entitlement message produces a net 10-point swing away from Democrats toward Republicans. It’s especially effective with women, causing a net 15-point shift away from Democrats to Republicans.

The entitlement message also makes respondents view the Republican Party as more economically conservative. Most respondents (66 percent) view Republicans as conservative on fiscal issues and view Democrats as economic liberals (64 percent). This is significant because increased support for Republicans can be viewed as a strong proxy for enthusiasm for fiscally conservative policy prescriptions.

Bottom line: 

  • A serious entitlement reform message is good policy and politics.
  • The “economic growth,” “stealing from our children,” and “general” debt messages are very effective at increasing Republican support, but not at undermining Democrats or increasing support for conservative policies.