July 11, 2011

Public Now Divided on Debt Limit Debate

Default Concerns Rise among Independents

As the debate over the nation’s debt and deficit continues, the public has grown more concerned that failing to raise the debt limit would force the government into default and hurt the economy. Despite this change, however, about as many Americans are concerned by the consequences of raising the nation’s debt limit as by the fallout from not doing so.

Currently, 47% say their greater concern is that raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending and make the national debt bigger, while 42% say their greater concern is that not raising the limit would force the government into default and hurt the economy. This represents a change in the balance of opinion since May, when more expressed concern over raising the debt limit (48%) than said their greater concern was the prospect of a government default (35%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and The Washington Post, conducted July 7-10 among 1,007 adults, finds that independents are now evenly divided in concerns over the debt limit: 46% say their greater concern is that raising the limit would lead to higher government spending while 45% say their bigger concern is that not raising the limit will lead to a default. Two months ago, independents by 49% to 34% expressed more concern over raising the debt limit.

Opinions have changed little among Republicans and Democrats. In the new survey, 66% of Republicans say their greater concern is that raising the debt limit would lead to more government spending; 54% of Democrats say their greater concern is that not raising the limit would lead to a government default.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, concern that raising the debt limit would lead to increased government spending is particularly pronounced among those who agree with the Tea Party. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Republicans and GOP leaners who agree with the Tea Party say their bigger concern is that raising the debt limit would result in more spending; that compares with 58% of Republicans and leaners who do not agree with the movement.

The new survey finds that many Americans continue to say they do not have a good understanding of what would happen if the government does not raise the debt limit. A narrow majority (55%) say they understand the consequences very (18%) or fairly well (37%). This is little changed from May (50% very/fairly well). Those who say they understand this issue at least fairly well are divided in their concerns: 49% express more concern about raising the debt limit while 46% say they are more concerned over not raising the debt limit. In May, those who felt they understood the issue, on balance, were more concerned about raising the debt limit (by 52% to 37%).

Broad Concern about Both Outcomes

Americans continue to see potential downsides from both outcomes of the debt limit debate. Large numbers say they are at least somewhat concerned that raising the debt limit would lead to higher spending (78%) and that failing to take action would lead to a government default (75%).

Somewhat more (51%) say they are very concerned that raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending than say that about not raising the limit (44%). However, the proportion saying they are very concerned over not raising the limit has risen (from 37% very concerned) since May.

Fully 68% of Republicans say they are very concerned that raising the debt limit would lead to more government spending. Fewer Democrats (53%) say they are very concerned that not raising the debt limit would lead to a government default. These opinions are largely unchanged from May.