Tax Cuts and Preference-Intensity

Larry Bartels consistently puts out some of the most interesting and journalistically relevant political science around, and now he’s doing some blogging for the polling site YouGov. I’m expecting great things. His debut is a brilliant explication of how it is that rescinding tax cuts for the wealthy can be a losing position even though a superficial read of the polls says it’s popular. About 11 percent want all the Bush tax cuts repealed (I’m in this group). Then 42 percent — including the median voter — support the President’s position, repeal the rich-people-only tax cuts but keep in place the across-the-board ones. Just 28 percent support the pro-rich people position.

But then there’s preference-intensity:

Even more importantly, the sizable minority of people who want the tax cuts for affluent taxpayers renewed seem to attach much more weight to this issue than the slim majority who want them to expire. In a statistical analysis taking separate account of prospective voters’ broader partisan attachments, those who support President Obama’s position on the tax cuts are only 6% more likely than those who are unsure about the issue to say they will vote for a Democratic House candidate. Even those who want to let all the tax cuts expire are only 9% more likely to vote Democratic. By comparison, those who want to keep the tax cuts for affluent taxpayers in place are 22% more likely to say they will vote for a Republican House candidate.

An even more lopsided difference appears in the impact of tax cut preferences on presidential approval. People who support President Obama’s position on this issue are only slightly more approving of his overall performance than those who are unsure, while those who want to renew all the tax cuts are moved about five times as far toward disapproving. Among political independents, a whopping 76% of those who want continued tax cuts for the rich say they strongly disapprove of the president’s performance; only 27% of those who support his proposal for selective extension of the tax cuts are equally disenchanted.

Some but by no means all of this is just part of the larger “enthusiasm gap” story. But the bigger picture point is that the people who favor tax cuts for the rich really care a lot about this issue. The people who don’t favor them aren’t nearly as committed. And in politics it’s often preference-intensity that matters most. The total absence of some kind of committed, high-intensity pro-revenue voting bloc is one of the most fundamental facts of post-Reagan politics.