Wealth Tax and Free College Get Poll Support. Democrats Worry It Won’t Last.
There is a puzzle for the Democratic challengers hoping to unseat President Trump, and it is evident in public reaction to some of their breakout policy ideas.
Polls show several of those ideas are quite popular with the electorate, including taxing the assets of very wealthy Americans and offering free college and government-paid health care to everyone in the country. But Democratic voters — even ones who support the plans enthusiastically — worry that the popularity of the proposals will fade before next year’s general election and become a liability for their party’s nominee.
New polling for The New York Times by the internet research firm SurveyMonkey shows that two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, favor a plan by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to impose a so-called wealth tax on assets exceeding $50 million.
About three in five Americans — including seven in 10 political independents — support plans for a “Medicare for all” health care program and guaranteed free tuition to two- and four-year colleges. Those ideas have been proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other candidates.
In interviews, Democratic poll respondents said those proposals would help fight rising economic inequality — but worry that they won’t fly in today’s polarized political climate.
“All the great ideas they have for the economy are interesting, but I think we all know it’s kind of a heavy lift to get them through,” said one of the respondents, Grant Cooper, 67, who runs a résumé writing business in New Orleans.
He said that the country was “getting more and more open to the idea that the 1 percent have been not really paying their fair share,” but that Democrats would be better off taking a more incremental approach in that direction.
Strategists in both parties caution that the messaging fight over policy in the presidential campaign has not yet ramped up. Mr. Trump, other Republicans and conservative interest groups have attacked some of the Democrats’ tax-and-spend plans — particularly Medicare for all — but have yet to fight the wealth tax with the same force they trained on previous Democratic proposals to increase taxes on very rich Americans. Mr. Trump has focused less on policy details than on deriding his potential rivals as “socialists.”
Still, strategists say that several of the Democrats’ plans are tailored well for the pithy world of political communication, and that some, like the wealth tax, could prove durable against Republican criticism. Now they’re trying to convince Democratic voters that is the case, along with candidates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who has warned that some of Mr. Sanders’s proposals would be political liabilities.
“In terms of progressive policy,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has tested those and other liberal plans extensively in voter surveys, “one of the big things we’re finding is it’s not opposition we’re fighting, it’s cynicism. People don’t think it can happen.”
Mr. Trump has already begun to make the strong economy a selling point in his case for re-election. But the SurveyMonkey polling shows support for liberal economic policies that often cuts across income lines. The wealth tax and Medicare for all each won majority support from low-, middle- and high-income Americans. Free college won strong support from the poor and middle income earners, but respondents who earn $100,000 a year or more were nearly evenly divided.
The polling also shows about three in five Americans support policies to narrow the gap between wealthy and less-well-off Americans. Respondents echoed that sentiment in interviews.
“The economy is really good for the top half of 1 percent,” said Melissa Devlin, 44, a Democrat in South Florida. “People have jobs, but they don’t have great jobs.”
Ms. Devlin, an administrator at a local charter school network, is still paying off student loans, and has two sons who will be heading to college in the next few years. Housing costs are rising, she said, and salaries aren’t keeping pace. She said she supported progressive policies such as Medicare for all and free college, and she welcomed Ms. Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax. She rejected suggestions from Republican leaders that such policies amount to socialism.
But as much as she would like to see such policies enacted, Ms. Devlin said she was nervous about nominating a candidate who espoused them. She worries that Ms. Warren or Senator Kamala Harris of California would seem too far to the left to swing-state voters.
“I would like someone more radical, but because the situation is so dire, I think Joe is our safest bet to beat Trump,” Ms. Devlin said, referring to Mr. Biden. “I used to think that policy was more important, but because of the stinging defeat that we had, I don’t trust that anymore.”
The batch of soak-the-rich proposals draws support well beyond core Democrats, the polling shows. Some Republican strategists say it’s easy to see why: Americans, they say, generally like the idea of taxing other people in order to provide benefits for people like themselves. And they say Ms. Warren’s proposal, which would tax only net worth above $50 million, is narrowly defined enough that most Americans can feel confident they will never pay it. Economists advising Ms. Warren estimate that 75,000 high-wealth American households would owe money to the government under her proposal.
“One of the things that I think is particularly savvy about wealth taxes is, it appeals to people because they don’t think it’s taxing them,” said Mattie Duppler, a conservative political strategist who is a senior fellow at the National Taxpayers Union in Washington.
Kim Mitchell, a 58-year-old Ohio resident, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. But she is now leaning toward supporting Ms. Warren, largely because of her economic proposals. Wealthy individuals and corporations have too many ways to get out of paying taxes, Ms. Mitchell said. And a country as rich as the United States should be able to ensure its citizens can get health care and a college education without going into debt.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a Republican, but she’s enough to make me jump the fence,” she said of Ms. Warren.
Ms. Mitchell’s father worked for General Electric and retired with a pension. Her husband, now deceased, spent a career in the military. But she is now scraping to get by on a disability check that isn’t keeping up with the cost of living. She said Mr. Trump had failed to deliver on his promise to help people like her improve their lot.
“My husband spent 20 years in the Navy, and I’m living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I think the upper 5 or 10 percent are probably succeeding. Us down here in the bottom 10 percent are not.”
Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster, said Republicans could find it difficult to attack the wealth tax proposal in particular, because it appealed to voters’ values and emotions.
“It doesn’t require you to do math to figure it out,” she said.
Ms. Duppler, though, pointed to an internal Democratic math debate over the efficacy of the tax, noting criticisms from former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers over how much revenue it would raise to fund programs such as free college.
“Republicans are wise to let Democrats fight amongst themselves on this,” she said.
There are signs that the policies do not poll as a block — some voters like only a sampling of what the Democrats are offering.
Lonnie Shumate is a Marine veteran who works as a manager for an oil-change chain in western North Carolina. He earns less than $40,000 a year and lives mostly paycheck to paycheck. The American middle class, he said, is dying out. He considers himself conservative on economic issues, and generally votes for Republicans.
Yet Mr. Shumate, 35, said he was open to Medicare for all and noted that government-run health care systems worked in Europe. And he said he liked the idea of offering free college tuition, at least for two-year programs.
“I don’t mind the free college idea because college is way too expensive,” he said.
But while Mr. Shumate said he was concerned about inequality, he draws the line at the wealth tax. Some — but not all — of the assets subject to the tax would have already been taxed as income, which he said would not be fair.
“I don’t believe in taxing somebody on money that they’ve earned twice,” he said. “There are plenty of other places they could cut money from.”
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 2,662 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from July 1 to July 7. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus three percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.
Jim Tankersley covers economic and tax policy. Over more than a decade covering politics and economics in Washington, he has written extensively about the stagnation of the American middle class and the decline of economic opportunity. @jimtankersley
Ben Casselman writes about economics, with a particular focus on stories involving data. He previously reported for FiveThirtyEight and The Wall Street Journal. @bencasselman • Facebook
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