News Flash: Americans Still Don't Understand Deficits

At Business Insider, Walter Hickey reports results from an online survey (commissioned by the website) that show a public muddled over the consequences of going over the fiscal cliff. Per the survey, 47.4 percent of Americans said that the deficit would increase if we went over the cliff, only 12.6 percent say that it would decrease. Here are the full results:

Yes, this is an online poll, and you should take the results with a grain of salt. Still, this remarkable, given the fact that the whole reason to worry about the cliff is that it would put the United States on a path of large and (relatively) rapid austerity.

With that said, I’m not too surprised; most Americans don’t actually understand what the deficit is—opinions of the deficit are essentially a proxy for opinions of the economy writ large. Voters associate high deficits with poor economic performance—the public might say that it wants more action to lower the deficit, but what it means is that it wants Washington to improve the economy.

People know that the fiscal cliff would have negative consequences for the economy, and they associate those with high deficits, even if that’s the exact opposite of what going over the cliff would do.


Jamelle, one thing that Nate Silver noted in his post-election roundup is that online polls were surprisingly accurate in terms of accurately capturing voter sentiment.

I wonder if this signals that they can be relied upon more often in questions like this, or if they are only of value in asking simpler "who will you vote for?"-type of questions.

Is this something that you can address in a future post, or perhaps in an exchange with Nate?

If going over the cliff were to cause a steep recession (if , for example, there were no quick Jan. resolution), then the cliff really might cause the deficit to go up. Austerity sinkhole, anyone?

These online polls are not always accurate, but looking at this poll has caused me to change my decision.
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