A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Tax Cuts and Americans: It’s Complicated


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell misrepresented public opinion about the Bush tax cuts, which are due to expire at the end of the year. In his weekly remarks Nov. 20, he made this unequivocal statement:

McConnell, Nov. 20: Americans don’t think we should be raising taxes on anybody, especially in the middle of a recession.

But American opinion on the Bush tax cuts is not as clear as McConnell portrays it. Of five recent polls, only one shows a majority favored extending the tax cut for all Americans.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll taken Nov. 11 to 14 found only 35 percent of those surveyed wanted to extend the tax cuts for all Americans. A plurality — 49 percent — favored extending them only for families earning less than $250,000, which is the position supported by President Barack Obama. Another 15 percent wanted them to expire for everybody.

A Quinnipiac University poll, conducted from Nov. 8 to 15, found similar results:

  • 35 percent of voters say the tax cuts should continue for everyone;
  • 43 percent say the tax cuts should continue only for those earning less than $250,000;
  • 14 percent say all the tax cuts should expire.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken Nov. 11 to 15 gave respondents more options, but again the plurality supported allowing the tax cuts to expire for those earning more than $250,000:

  • Eliminate all the tax cuts permanently, 10 percent
  • Eliminate the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 per year, but keep them for those earning less than that, 39 percent
  • Keep in place all the tax cuts for everyone for another year to three years, 23 percent
  • Keep in place the tax cuts for everyone permanently, 23 percent
  • None of these (voluntary response), 1 percent
  • Not sure, 4 percent

This was the paper’s verdict on its poll:

Wall Street Journal, Nov. 18: Americans were divided on a key issue facing lawmakers as they meet for their lame-duck session: what to do about the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at year’s end. A 39% plurality favored the Democrats’ view that cuts for those earning less than $250,000 a year should remain while higher earners should lose their cut. About a quarter, 23%, wanted all the tax cuts left in place up to three years, while the same fraction wanted them retained permanently.

There are some polls that McConnell can point to that support his position — barely.

In a two-day telephone survey taken Nov. 13 and 14, Rasmussen Reports found 50 percent of Americans want to extend tax cuts for all Americans, while 44 percent say they should be extended "for everyone except the wealthy." That’s still just half who support McConnell’s position, not a majority.

One recent poll did show a majority favoring extension of the tax cuts for everybody. An Associated Press/GfK poll that went into the field a day after the election, from Nov. 3-8, found 53 percent of those polled wanted to extend the Bush tax cuts for everybody and 32 percent favored extending them only for those earning less than $250,000. Another 12 percent said the tax cuts should be allowed to expire for everyone.

That result may be a temporary blip brought about by news of the big gains that Republicans scored in the Nov. 2 elections. A September AP/GfK poll found that only 44 percent wanted to extend the tax cuts for all taxpayers, 39 percent wanted them to expire for those earning more than $250,000, and 15 percent supported allowing the tax cuts to expire for everyone.

So, American opinion — as the Wall Street Journal says — is divided.

Still, McConnell says extending the Bush tax cuts should be the top priority for the lame-duck Congress:

McConnell, Nov. 20: The top priority of most Americans is to create jobs and get the economy moving. And the single best thing we could do in Washington to achieve that goal is to prevent a tax hike that’s about to hit every taxpayer and hundreds of thousands of small businesses at the stroke of Midnight on Dec. 31.

Americans clearly don’t agree, at least according to one poll that sought to gauge Americans’ legislative priorities.

A USA Today/Gallup poll taken shortly before the election (Oct. 28-31) found only 8 percent of Americans thought that extending the Bush tax cuts for all Americans should be the highest priority for Congress. It was ranked last among four options behind a new stimulus bill (38 percent), cutting federal spending (24 percent), and repealing the health care law (23 percent).