Elections: tax cut versus lockbox: did the voters grasp the tradeoff in 2000?

Author:Wattenberg, Martin P.

The 2000 presidential election was consequential for many reasons, among them being that soon after his inauguration George W. Bush was able to carry out his campaign promise of a large tax cut for all taxpayers. Had the election turned out differently and Al Gore assumed the presidency, he would have certainly vetoed such a bill, as Gore made abundantly clear during the campaign.

Even before the first votes were cast in the 2000 presidential primaries, George W. Bush laid out a specific plan for an across-the-board cut in federal income taxes. During the fall campaign, Al Gore sharply criticized Bush's proposal as likely to blow a hole in the federal budget, and expressed outrage that the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers would reap a large share of the benefits. Bush responded that because the government was running a surplus Americans were being overtaxed, and argued that it was surely sensible for the people who pay the most in taxes to get the most back from a tax cut. He pressed the point that the surplus was the people's money, not the federal government's money--and that therefore the people should get it back. Gore's disagreement was not about whose money it was but what should be done with the surplus. In his view, the people would eventually need it to prop up Medicare and Social Security. He therefore proposed that much of the federal budget surplus be set aside for these programs and held in what he termed a "lockbox."

In sum, the choice was crystal clear for all to see during the 2000 campaign--a big tax cut for everyone, or setting aside surplus funds for Social Security and Medicare in a lockbox. When Bush emerged victorious he argued that the people who voted for him wanted a tax cut and therefore he had a mandate to deliver just such a policy change, conveniently ignoring the fact that more people voted for his opponent. Had the situation been reversed, Gore would no doubt have said the same about his lockbox proposal. Politicians always claim that people knew what they were voting for when they cast their ballots for them. It would defeat the purpose of democracy for them to do otherwise. After all, they spend countless hours trying to convince people of the wisdom of their policy goals, and it would not make any sense for them to acknowledge that many people were unaware of their platform or did not understand the issues.

Scholars, on the other hand, have long been cognizant of the limitations of the public's information about public policy issues, and have frequently challenged politicians' claims of a mandate from the voters for their policies. The long history of research on voting behavior and public opinion should lead anyone to be cautious about concluding that voters in 2000 were casting ballots for Bush or Gore based on their views concerning the crucial issue of a tax cut versus a lockbox. Nevertheless, the degree to which this article finds that voters failed to understand the choices involved is stunning. And even among the voters whose opinions matched up with a candidate, the correspondence between one's vote and one's opinion on this crucial stance was not impressive. Overall, far more survey respondents agreed with Gore's position than Bush's position, thereby making Bush's claim of a mandate to cut federal income taxes seem particularly weak. Data from the 2000 American National Election Study and the National Annenberg Election Study will be analyzed to demonstrate these points.

American National Election Study Data

In the pre-election wave of the 2000 American National Election Study (ANES), respondents were asked back-to-back questions about the two sides of the tax cut versus lockbox issue. The first question was posed as follows:

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how to spend the extra money the federal government is likely to have in the near future. Some people have proposed that most of the expected federal budget surplus should be used to cut taxes. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal? This question essentially measures support for George W. Bush's position of returning most of the budget surplus money to the people in the form of a tax cut. Note that the question specifically refers to using "most" of the surplus for tax cuts. By any reasonable judgment of consistency, respondents who said that they favored this proposal should oppose all other options for using most of the surplus. Assuming that "most" means over 50 percent, there is no way to allocate this much of the surplus to two different arenas. Nevertheless, many respondents did just that in answering the very next question in the survey, which was posed as follows:

Some people have proposed that most of the expected federal budget surplus should go to protecting Social Security and Medicare. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal? This question effectively taps support for Gore's position of allocating surplus federal revenues to a lockbox for social programs. Thus, respondents who said they supported each of these two proposals not only expressed a desire to allocate more than 100 percent of the surplus but also favored both the Bush and Gore positions. As shown in Table 1, the percentage of the population that responded this way was an astounding 53 percent.

All told, only 36 percent of the ANES respondents offered responses that were consistent with either Bush's position or Gore's position. Twenty-six percent agreed with Gore's proposal to use most of the surplus to protect Social Security and Medicare and opposed the tax cut; just 10 percent agreed with Bush's stance of allocating most of the surplus for a tax cut as opposed to a lockbox for social programs. Although neither candidate could claim a mandate based on these data, it is evident that Gore's position was definitely more popular.

Interestingly, 6 percent of all respondents agreed with neither position. This response pattern actually makes substantially more sense than agreeing with both the tax cut and the lockbox. One can certainly imagine...

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