Americans dislike deficits and debt. So why don’t they vote that way?

Commentary on Congress By Kevin R. Kosar June 6, 2024
Annual deficits make for ever growing debt. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Do voters punish politicians who increase budget deficits and saddle future generations with debt? 

According to one research paper, yes, they do.

Adi Brender (Bank of Israel) and Allan Drazen (University of Maryland) crunched data from 23 nations on budgets and the electoral fortunes of chief executives, who voters tend to view as responsible for fiscal stewardship. Their unambiguous finding was that “increased deficits during an incumbent’s term in office, especially in election years, reduce the probability that a leader is re-elected.”

Their analysis may seem surprising in light of other scholarly findings. For example, Suzanne Mettler‘s book The Submerged State (2011) depicts how voters are happy to accept more government help, then forget that the government is providing it, and balk at increasing taxes—or the removal of existing benefits. (“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”)

And there is evidence aplenty that politicians frequently think voters can be bought off with government largesse. John Hudak’s book, Presidential Pork (Brookings Institution Press, 2014) explains how presidents spread federal largesse around in election years. A grant here, a new bit of infrastructure there—fiscal pork is dropped where it is thought most likely to swing voters, who are thought to care more about getting something than the total budget picture. Not too long ago, congressmen also did this, frequently with abandon. Studies like Morris Fiorina’s Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment (Yale University Press, 1989) illustrated how legislators tried to boost their re-election odds by sending a steady stream of benefits to interest groups and constituents at a collective cost to the nation.

On the other hand, it is plain to the eye that the word “deficit” is a pejorative term to voters. Sure, folks can be persuaded that priming the pump during an economic downturn through federal spending is wise. But otherwise, the very idea of spending more than one takes in is not a political winner. Don’t believe it? Then ask yourself, “Has any aspiring legislator ever campaigned on the promise to grow the deficit and debt because doing so is inherently excellent?”

Source: Gallup.

Which brings me back to Brender and Drazen’s article. They write that voters’ “dislike of deficits holds in both election years and during the rest of the term.” Their conclusion is supported by robust methodological rigor.

So, yay for representative democracy for translating voter preferences into policy, right?

Well, no. Unfortunately, it appears U.S. voters are exceptions to the rule. 

With few exceptions, the U.S. ran annual budget deficits between 1960 and 2003 —the period of the paper’s analysis— and the resultant debt climbed. But during this period most sitting American presidents were re-elected—comfortably. Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected after finishing out Kennedy’s term. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton were two-termers. So too George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Only Clinton could boast that he actually lowered deficits and helped get America to a surplus. The rest of the winners presided over a worsening of the nation’s finances. 

What about the losers during this same period? Well, Gerald Ford’s ouster was no wonder—he was the disgraced and despised Nixon’s vice president who pardoned him. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush had their own problems, and there’s little evidence to suggest voters punished them for deficits and debt. “Poppy” Bush even raised taxes for the sake of bettering the country’s ledger. And Trump, well, he barely lost and it certainly wasn’t deficits that turned some swing voters against him.

The deeper question, of course, is “Why are Americans unusual on this count?”

One possibility is that U.S. voters cannot comfortably place much blame on presidents for fiscal performance.

In support of this hypothesis, I’d point to table 7 of the Brender-Drazen paper. It shows that the U.S. is the only one of the 23 nations examined that does not have a parliamentary or proportional system, both of which more clearly assign a party to be “in charge” than the U.S.’s political system. Indeed, for the past 50 years, U.S. voters were happy to split control of the government: a Republican might be president, but Democrats ran Congress, or vice versa. Divided government means neither party can credibly claim responsibility for the state of the budget. It also incentivizes blame-shifting by politicians.

There also is the complex nature of our budget process, which obscures reality and responsibility. The president’s budget, which many voters may mistake as the actual budget, inevitably is filled with wishful thinking. So, too, is Congress’s budget resolution, which promises balanced budgets within the foreseeable future. Appropriations acts come sometime after the president’s budget and the budget resolution, and more often than not arrive balled up as omnibuses, continuing resolutions, or “cromnibuses” agreed to when the choice is government shutdown or business-as-usual. The latter likely is more attractive to most voters, as government shutdowns look like governance failures—the product of toxic partisanship.

It is also worth adding that the federal budget process tends to be settled by early October, long before the mid-November elections, which lowers the salience of the budget in voters’ minds.

Finally, I must note that I have asked many voters whether they have voted against a legislator or president because of deficits and debt. Not one of them has cited fiscal mismanagement as the reason. Indeed, Gallup poll data shows that while a lot of Americans presently “worry a great deal about deficits” only a tiny percentage of Americans presently cite deficits as a “most important problem.”

Source: Gallup.

This prompts three questions: Are there aspects of our governmental institutions that fail to translate voters’ worries into policy? Or, are American voters simply all talk when it comes to responsible budgeting? And if the latter is the case, what is a responsible legislator to do?

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He worked for more than a decade as a nonpartisan researcher at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. Kevin also hosts the Understanding Congress podcast and is co-editor of the book, Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform. A version of this essay previously appeared in the Weekly Standard.


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