In survey after survey and focus group after focus group voters tell us that the federal government spends too much money. On that, the vast majority of voters agree. The hard part comes when we ask voters what programs should be cut. Typically, they focus on items that represent very small portions of the federal budget, such as foreign aid. The always popular plan to “cut waste, fraud, and abuse,” is also frequently cited.

However, as avid budget watchers know, reducing foreign aid and eliminating the waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal budget would make only a very small dent in the budget as a whole. Thus, the key question for deficit hawks and advocates for smaller government and reduced spending is what types of federal spending can be cut that will have a real impact on the budget, while also being politically tenable.

In the most recent edition of the always enlightening poll of 18-29 year olds from the Harvard Institute of Politics and Knowledge Networks, they used an interesting and unique methodology to see what types of government programs millennials would be open to cutting or reducing. The full methodology is provided at the end of this post, but the short version of what they did is provide respondents with head-to head match ups of twelve potential ways of reducing the federal deficit, ask respondents which of the two they preferred.

The various options are ranked below, in order of MOST preferred.

Option for Reducing the Federal Deficit % Prefer this option/
% Prefer other option
Cut foreign economic aid in half 71% prefer this/
22% prefer other
Reduce spending related to the nuclear arsenal by reducing U.S. nuclear warheads from approximately 2,000 to approximately 1,550 70% prefer this/
23% prefer other
Enact the “Buffet Rule,” a requirement that people making over one million dollars a year pay at least 30% of their income in taxes 69% prefer this/
24% prefer other
Reduce food stamp levels to 2008 levels and limit growth in spending on food stamps to the rate of inflation 58% prefer this/
36% prefer other
Reduce U.S. Navy fleet to 230 ships from a projected 320 ships 51% prefer this/
41% prefer other
Increase the gas tax by six cents per gallon 44% prefer this/
49% prefer other
Raise the retirement age for Social Security from 65 to 68 41% prefer this/
52% prefer other
Significantly reduce the Earned Income Tax Credit and offset to payroll taxes for low-income workers with children and the child tax credit 38% prefer this/
54% prefer other
Reduce Social Security benefits, except for workers who earn below the 30th percentile of earners 33% prefer this/
60% prefer other
Increase the gas tax by 15 cents 32% prefer this/
61% prefer other
Raise Medicare premiums to 35% of costs 28% prefer this/
64% prefer other
Cut federal K-12 funding by 25% 22% prefer this/
71% prefer other

Before we look at some of the key takeaways from this data, one important note. The format of these questions is what is known as a forced choice. In other words, the respondent HAD to choose one or the other. That means that the “prefer this” number should NOT be interpreted the same away as a favor/oppose number. In other words, the 44% “prefer this” number for increasing the gas tax by six cents does not mean that 44% of millennials FAVOR increasing the gas tax.

With that caveat, some key takeaways:

  • Younger voters are open to cuts in military spending. Two of the five options that a majority preferred dealt with some aspect of military spending.
  • The “Buffet Rule” polls well at a national level, and those strong numbers are matched by the numbers among 18-29 year olds. There is substantial support for making sure millionaires pay at least 30% of their income in taxes.
  • Entitlement reform remains a thorny issue. Millennials largely rejected the changes to Social Security and Medicaid that were tested.
  • On the increase in the gas tax, a six cent increase produced a fairly divided result, while a 15 cent increase is a non-starter
  • Due to their age, respondents are not as likely to have kids of their own, but cuts to K-12 funding was still the least appealing of the options tested.

Reducing government spending is a winning issue for Republicans with all subgroups, including younger voters. However, it is also an issue where the devil is in the details, and the types of programs that voters are open to making cuts to often don’t match up to the types of programs Republicans are thinking about. As Republicans continue to consider various approaches to reducing spending, they should also utilize survey data to assess the impact these approaches will have at the ballot box.

Public Opinion Strategies