While policy wonks inside the Beltway consider the pros and cons of budget minutia, Americans outside of Washington are watching the budget debate from a 30,000-foot view: Democrats propose more spending and bigger government, while Republicans are viewed as the party of austerity. Americans may worry about our mountain of government debt, but they aren’t excited about more belt-tightening either. This poses a tough communication challenge for the GOP: How can Republicans offer a positive, forward-looking message around an agenda of fiscal reform and restraint?
The Independent Women’s Voice (IWV) commissioned Evolving Strategies (ES) to conduct new experimental message research to determine what message really is most effective at increasing support for meaningful budget reforms. What IWV learned is that Americans are much more open to serious change when it comes to the national debt than lawmakers seem to realize. Republicans can win on policy and political ground with a clear message on overall spending restraint (rather than cuts) and serious, targeted entitlement reform.
ES 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 18 treatment conditions on the national deficit and debt to determine the best messages for conservative communicators to generate policy support for broad spending constraints and boost political support for Republicans.
Americans want to get spending under control – more than 50 percent of respondents in our Control group of swing voters support a spending freeze. And while trying to fight specific spending is a challenge, one message stands out as particularly helpful in generating support for broad spending constraints: speak in terms of “just spending the same” next year as we did this year, just like a family facing financial concerns would do. Directly addressing the spending issue in language that is analogous to a family budget increases support for a budget freeze by nearly 14-points (from 51-65 percent).
Those closely following budget debates know GOP plans focus on slowing the rate of growth, rather than actual reductions. But the typical citizen finds reports about reducing “rates of increase” confusing. And such technical budget talk leaves conservatives vulnerable to demagoguery from the Left about severe “cuts.”
Republicans should be seeking opportunities to change the conversation from counter-productive disputes over spending “cuts” to the common-sense idea that government should live within its means and not overcommit, a concept every American family can identify with.
Still there’s more that lawmakers can do to gain public support for serious spending control: talk about the need to reform entitlements to make them sustainable for future generations and fix the budget.
For far too long Republicans have considered entitlements the “third rail” of politics – an issue better left alone. In fact, one can’t find the word entitlement, Social Security, or Medicare referenced even once in the House Republican Conference Twitter feed over the past three months besides one attack on Democrats raiding Medicare.
IWV’s research, however, found that talking about saving entitlements for future generations was effective in driving up support (from 51 to 57 points) for a spending freeze, in addition to increasing support for serious entitlement reform policies. A message that clearly articulates the extent of the entitlement problem and positive ways of addressing it boosted support for means-testing both Medicare and Social Security by 8-points, from 44 percent in the Control group to 52 percent.
Indeed, the saving entitlements message actually seems to be an all-around winning message. Not only does it drive support for important policy changes like spending restraint and meaningful entitlement reform, it also has positive political impact, undermining public support for progressives, and producing a net 10-point swing away from Democrats toward Republicans. This effect is particularly pronounced with women – a critical voting bloc for the GOP – causing a net 15-point shift away from Democrats toward Republicans. The entitlement issue looks devastating for Democrats, not Republicans.
Dealing with our government’s spending might seem overwhelming in political and policy terms, but there are messages that can encourage progress. Americans are looking for direction and someone to offer responsible solutions, but it’s important that lawmakers deliver that message in the right way. Policymakers should set aside their fears; spending restraint and entitlement reform is a winning narrative for conservatives.
Hadley Heath is a policy analyst with the Independent Women’s Voice and Adam Schaeffer is director of research and co-founder of Evolving Strategies.