What do average Americans say when they are faced with the budget tradeoffs on national security that policymakers face today? When polls ask in the abstract about defense spending, Americans are often reluctant to cut it. However when Americans are asked to consider the deficit and presented with tradeoffs, majorities cut defense and cut it more than any other area of the budget. Furthermore when they learn how much of the budget goes to defense, large majorities cut it, on average quite deeply.
This issue has become confused in public discussion, because many polls simply ask Americans whether they favor cutting defense, increasing it, or keeping it the same. These find that more favor cuts than increases, but those favoring cuts are still fewer than half of those surveyed. A February 2011 Pew poll found only 30% ready to cut, while fewer (13%) favored increases, and most (53%) said they accepted current levels.
When pollsters frame the issue in terms of the budget deficit, the number ready to cut defense may rise to about half. Most recently, an October Washington Post/Bloomberg Poll asked respondents whether they supported or opposed “reducing military spending” to help reduce the nation’s budget deficit. Fifty-one percent supported it and 42 percent were opposed. Some polls have found lower numbers in support.
As respondents are given more information, support for reductions rises. When Quinnipiac University in March simply told respondents that defense, Social Security and Medicare together constitute more than half of the federal budget, 54% favored cutting defense spending.
And when they are asked to choose between defense and other programs, defense is consistently the most popular program to cut. When CBS/NY Times, on several occasions over the least year asked respondents to choose where they would prefer to cut Medicare, social security or the military, 45-55 percent chose the military, 16-21 percent Medicare, 13-17 percent Social Security.
If respondents are given choices between large and small cuts, overall support for cutting rises even more. In a Kaiser Foundation poll conducted in September, 67% favored some reduction in defense to address the deficit, with 28% favoring a major reduction and 39% a minor reduction.
So how much is a minor cut and how much is a major cut? Two other polls have given respondents some actual numbers. A National Journal poll last September asked respondents whether they favored the plan for “reducing the growth of defense spending by about $350 billion over 10 years,” and 55% said they favored it.
A poll that I conducted in December 2010 with colleagues at the Program for Public Consultation, affiliated with the University of Maryland, went much further. It informed respondents how much was being spent on 31 of the largest categories in the federal discretionary budget, and asked whether and how much they wanted to adjust those amounts. As they made choices, it gave them constant feedback about the effect of their decisions on the deficit. In this information-rich context, 70 percent cut defense spending. The average respondent cut defense $109 billion, or 18 percent of the department’s annual spending (outside of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan). This was by far the largest cut, constituting two-thirds of all the cuts made.
Many observers may find it bewildering that these responses vary, depending on the different ways the questions were asked. But this is not a chaotic process. There is a fairly clear pattern: The more Americans are asked to think like policymakers — where they consider the deficit, make trade-offs against other budget priorities and, perhaps above all, when they understand the relative amount devoted to defense — the more they cut defense. When respondents have less information or are asked the question in isolation, they mostly tend to endorse the status quo.
It should be noted, though, that such endorsements can be misinterpreted or misrepresented as a public endorsement of recent policy. Over the years, including over the entire last decade, a steady rise in the defense budget has not conformed to the public’s preference, in which only small minorities favored such increases. Possibly because the public was unaware of what was happening, most embraced the new status quo in later polls. But they reiterated that they opposed further increases, which subsequently occurred.
The tendency of public officials to muddle their discussion of projected budget changes has contributed to this confusion. For example, the President’s newest defense budget is most often depicted as a cut of $487 billion over ten years. To many Americans, this means the United States will be spending less than it is now. But the plan actually calls for increases, above inflation — just smaller than those planned earlier.
The fact that the number of Americans who favor lower defense spending rises so dramatically with more complete information about the size of the defense budget strongly suggests that most Americans do not have this information. Indeed, when I have conducted focus groups and described the make-up of the federal budget, they often express astonishment at the relative share devoted to defense.
So what does this tell us about how the American public is likely to respond this year and next year? These findings show there is an underlying conservatism and a readiness to accept what the military establishment supports (the status quo) — and that a politician who wants to portray another as weak on defense for bucking the establishment may be able to make some political hay. However, they also suggest that as Americans become more fully engaged with the challenge of deficit cutting, and especially as they seek to make tradeoffs with other spending, support for defense cuts will likely rise.
Steven Kull, a political psychologist who has conducted polls on public policy for two decades, is director of the Program for Public Consultation, affiliated with the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.