Republican Voters May Be Turning Against a Core GOP Argument, Poll Says

A new survey breaks down attitudes on taxes—and finds that Americans may not be buying the conservative belief that tax cuts for the rich are worth it.
October 24, 2018, 5:29pm
Trump supporters at a rally.
A Trump rally in 2015. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

The single major law to emerge so far in the Trump era was the Tax Cuts and Job Act (TCJA), a much-derided behemoth that mostly benefited the rich and jacked up the federal deficit. In the year since its passage, companies have been buying back their own stock and the wealthy have taken to donating a chunk of their tax breaks to Republican politicians. And though the economy is doing quite well, it's far from clear the tax cut is the reason why.


Republicans aren't doing much to defend the law, instead focusing on immigrants and race and crime. A new poll from the Democracy Fund Voter Survey Group, a collection of bipartisan experts, shows why that might be the case: Voters, even Republican voters, don't like it when the rich get a tax cut.

The poll is part of a series of surveys that repeatedly interviewed the same set of thousands of people, some of whom have been getting polled since 2011–12. According to Felicia Wong, the president of the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute and a VSG participant, the goal of this survey was to go into more detail about tax policy than polls usually do. Often, pollsters will just ask people if they favor one tax policy or another without asking why or how those respondents view taxes generally. By contrast this poll asked people what they wanted out of tax reform, and turned up some interesting answers. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly wanted tax policies that reduce the deficit, lower rates on the middle class, and drive economic growth, they said in the survey. But though the two parties' voters were divided on whether corporate tax cuts are important, a surprising 55 percent of Trump voters said tax cuts for the wealthy were "unimportant" or "not very important," along with 89 percent of Clinton voters. And only 20 percent of voters—including only 41 percent of Trump voters—thought that tax cuts for the wealthy would help the economy.

To Wong, that suggests Americans are becoming more skeptical of the longstanding conservative argument that lower taxes will, in time, trickle down from the wealthy. It also provides Democrats with evidence that they don't need to be afraid of genuinely progressive economic rhetoric. I called Wong up to break down the results further.


VICE: Trump supporters mostly like the tax-cut bill while Trump opponents mostly hate it, and that made me wonder: To what extent are people's views just governed by what political tribe they belong to?
Felicia Wong: Despite the partisanship, you see a lot more unity on the Democratic side and a lot more potential fractures on the Republican side. Overall, far more voters opposed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act than supported it. More important is the intensity divide: You see 34 percent of all voters strongly opposing the cuts and only 18 percent strongly favoring. So you see a real intensity in the opposition, and you also see more intensity in 61 percent of Clinton voters strongly opposing it and Trump voters' strong favoring at 41 percent. There is no question that partisanship is at play here, but I'd also point out that there's more intensity on the anti-TCJA side.

Obviously Democratic voters don't want tax cuts for the wealthy—I don't think anyone would be surprised by that. But Republican voters seem to be really split on that issue. Tell me a little bit about how that split breaks down.
Fifty-five percent of all Trump voters do not prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy, compared to a 73 percent of all voters. The majority of Trump voters, generally speaking, are opposed to tax cuts for the wealthy—which for a long time have been central to conservative orthodoxy. That's a pretty surprising number.


When you look further, there are a lot of different ways to cut the data. One way that we looked at it was to compare Republican primary voters. Only 42 percent of Ted Cruz voters said that cuts for the wealthy were unimportant, as compared to 66 percent of John Kasich voters. On one hand you could say that's not very many voters. But on the other hand, you could say in a very, very divided country and in a country where both sides are struggling to keep their coalitions together, a 24-point divide on a fundamental issue like tax cuts for the wealthy between Kasich voters and Cruz voters is something that Republican strategists ought to be mindful of. Another way to cut the data is to look at Romney–Trump voters, who are classic loyal Republican voters, as opposed to the Obama–Trump switchers. Eighty-seven percent of Obama-Trump switchers as compared to 50 percent of the loyal Romney–Trumpers said the cuts for the wealthy were not important. That's a divide of almost 40 points. Those are both very interesting and potentially electorally significant ways to understand fissures in the Republican coalition. You see a lot more unity on the Democratic side about taxation questions generally than you do on the Trump side.

Is there any way for Democrats to exploit this information?
My colleague Lee Drutman, who's also a member of the Voter Study Group, would argue that people who believe progressive economic policies are good for America should just [run on those policies], which might or might not be electorally determinative for progressives or Democrats—nonetheless, they ought to do it because it's the right thing. The slightly more nuanced argument here is it's not clear whether running on those policies alone is going to bring back the Obama-Trump voter. And that's because the Obama-Trump voter is primarily animated at this point by a kind of a nationalism that is racially motivated, and as we've seen in the last month since the Kavanaugh hearings, there's been a lot of backlash against #MeToo. "Identity" issues have been used by Republicans to really drive home a cultural message with their base. Nonetheless, many Republican voters, even Republican base voters, would be open to progressive taxation and possibly other kinds of progressive economic policies.

The answer isn't just: Run on the economy and you're going to win back the Obama–Trump switchers, or run on the economy and suddenly Cruz voters are going to vote for a Bernie Sanders–type figure. But I do think that these policies will help progressives, not hurt them. It's possible to at least blunt the anti-progressive sentiment on the right with some of these policies. Progressive politicians can actually use some of these policies to signal to conservative voters, Actually, we're for you, too.


What's frustrating for me and a lot of left-of-center people is watching Democratic politicians refusing to say, "We're going to tax the rich more."
You're seeing more of that.

I think post-Sanders that's true. But do you think that will increase? They've been cautious about that for decades.
Yes, absolutely. There is a very long history that goes back at least 40 years of Democrats fearful of being labeled tax-and-spend liberals. I think you are starting to see that change. I mean, you saw a Ro Khanna bill in the House and a Kamala Harris bill come out of Senate that are very similar in that they're basically saying: Let's repeal the 2017 tax law and replace it with a much more redistributive law that would tax the rich [and move] more money to the poor and middle class.

Overall, what you're seeing is more young, newer Democratic politicians being willing to actually argue for middle-class tax benefits and increasing taxes on the rich and corporations. I do not think that means Democrats have figured out a comprehensive approach to progressive taxation. The bills that we're seeing are interesting and signal a lot of important things to the general public, but aren't yet a comprehensive approach. Democrats will have to get there.

Looking at it from the Republican perspective, there's a big divide between politicians and the public on this issue. A lot of their voters don't want tax cuts for the wealthy. So why did their politicians support this policy?
That is a really good question. I do not want to presume to understand the motivations of any particular politician, much less Republican politicians, but I would point out a few things. The first is the accusation that many have made, which is that the 2017 law really benefits corporations. You could make the argument that the people Republican elites are listening to are corporate lobbyists and corporate donors. The other thing I would suggest is that it's also possible that you still see politicians out there who truly do believe in the stimulative effect of trickle-down, though we have seen very little evidence that that is actually true.


It's the combination of these two things that I find politically very powerful and potentially dangerous. You've got a whole bunch people who, let's just presume, are out for themselves. They want a corporate cut because who wouldn't want a cut? You pocket more money. Then you have a whole bunch of other people saying, We're the economic experts and this is going to be good for the whole economy. You've got this brew of people who are going to take what they can get out of the tax cuts, with some people still arguing that they're economically beneficial.

It also seems like the basic Republican strategy on tax cuts lately has been to get people to avoid paying attention to them.
In the spring, when a number of Republicans tried to run on tax cuts, they did not succeed. The Congressional Leadership Fund (a Republican Super PAC), thought they were going to end up running on taxes. But as it turns out, only 17 percent of their 30,000-plus broadcast ads actually mentioned taxes, even when the tax law is the only legislative success of the current presidency. So it's very clear, and I think Republicans would also say this, that taxes have not been successful on the stump.

Some Republicans initially tried to say that the poor public results with respect to the tax cuts was because the GOP "lost the messaging battle." But actually, I think it's something far deeper. Americans' fundamental understanding of taxation has really changed since the 1980s. The Republican Party's economic ideology was essentially based on arguments for low taxes for the top. If Americans are changing their acceptance of that argument, it actually could mean something quite serious for Republicans as a whole.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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