Tax Analysts Blog

When it Comes to Taxes, Americans Are of Two Minds – or Three, or Five or Eight

Posted on Aug 27, 2015

If foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then Americans have very big minds, indeed.

While trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s statements on tax policy, I was struck by their disparate quality; to call them random is to exaggerate their coherence.

But then I realized that Trump might be on to something. Politicians are vote maximizers, skilled at channeling voter preferences. A developer-turned-reality-star is probably even better at it. So I took a look at recent polls on tax policy – and discovered a nation of Donald Trumps.

In July a poll by Quinnipiac University asked Americans if they “support or oppose increasing taxes on higher-income earners to reduce the amount of taxes paid by the middle class.” It wasn’t close: 60 percent said they liked the idea and only 36 percent opposed it. (All poll data in this post are drawn from the iPOLL Databank provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.)

So Americans want to soak the rich.

Except when they don’t. A June poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journalfound a near majority supporting the idea of a flat tax with “one single tax rate for every person”; 47 percent said they would look “much” or “somewhat” more favorably on any candidate espousing the idea.

Trump likes the flat tax, too – except when he doesn’t. Which makes him just like voters, who also harbor some conflicted feelings about a flat tax. In 2011, CBS News found that 32 percent of those polled liked the idea, but 36 percent opposed it. That’s a close call, but hardly a ringing endorsement by any measure. (In fact, the flat tax seems to poll well in the early stages of a campaign, and less well later on; just ask Steve Forbes.)

To be fair, I’m never sure if poll questions on tax reform can really tell us very much. Voters often don’t have enough information to make a considered judgment about specific tax plans, and when questions are worded to impart that information, they often imply their own answer.

What polls do seem to demonstrate, however, is that leading questions (and slated political rhetoric) can be shaped to produce the desired response. In June, Democracy Corps explored the resonance of various talking points offered up by both Republicans and Democrats. Asked if they supported “lower taxes on businesses and middle-class families which will immediately jump-start our economy like it did under Ronald Reagan,” 79 percent said they did, at least a little.

Big surprise.

That same poll, however, found that 76 percent supported plans to “raise taxes on the top 1 percent, limit skyrocketing CEO pay and close the performance-pay tax loophole so companies will invest for the long term and create jobs.”

Somewhere, a Democratic strategist deserves a raise.

These views are not wholly inconsistent. Many reduce to a nagging sense that some (rich) people are getting away with murder while other (less rich) folks are getting hosed. That doesn’t strike me as crazy, let alone stupid. But it does strike me as angry. And Trump is a master at channeling anger, whether directed at immigrants, hedge fund managers, the media, or politicians.

When it comes to policy specifics – on tax or anything else – Trump is more or less silent. He deals in broad generalities and emotional declarations. When he deigns to answer a direct question, he stakes out a strong position, only to tweak, denounce, abandon, and deny it later on. It can be hard to keep up.

But that’s the point. In polls, voters endorse a lot of different tax reforms, many in tension with one another and none of them very strongly. Trump has capitalized on that ambivalence. But he’s layered it with a strong dose of anger and resentment. Which, unlike his policy agenda, is no joke.

Read Comments (4)

edmund dantesAug 26, 2015

The best explanation I've seen of the Trump phenomenon is by Scott Adams,
creator of Dilbert. In a nutshell, Trump is not campaigning, he is
negotiating. Adams has several blog posts on Trumpism, but this one is
seminal.

A Trump presidency would kill tax reform a good long time--in the past he
expressed strong support for social engineering via the tax code.

AMT buffAug 27, 2015

Poll questions on policy are nearly always engineered to create the preferred
result. Such polls are worse than useless.

emsig beobachterAug 27, 2015

AMT Buff:

YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY CORRECT!!! Twelve out of ten people are in favor of reducing
their taxes and increasing yours!!!!

The DudeAug 31, 2015

So-called "flat taxes" or "fair taxes" always poll well, until people do some
basic math and realize that such taxes raise taxes on the poor and middle-class
and cut them for the better-off. And of course, "flat" or "fair" all depends
on what's being taxed, what deductions are are allowed, etc., most of which
pertain more to the better-off than the rest of us.

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