To most Republicans in Congress, it is a given that any deficit-reduction deal would have to include cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. According to a newly released survey, however, Republican voters in four key early-voting states disagree.
The AARP poll, conducted Oct. 17-20 by the Boise, Idaho-based GS Strategy Group, found that most Republican voters in Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina oppose even small changes to entitlement programs. Instead, they want lawmakers to cut the deficit by closing tax loopholes, cutting foreign aid, and ending the wars in Iraq (as President Barack Obama has promised to do by December) and Afghanistan.
Strong Support for Entitlement Programs
The poll found strong support for entitlement programs across the ideological spectrum, including among Tea Party supporters and the most conservative voters. Most Republicans agreed on this issue regardless of which presidential candidates they supported.
Strong majorities of each presidential candidate's supporters oppose these cuts, GS Strategy Group pollsters said in a report. Any Republican candidate advancing cuts to these programs puts their vote at risk.
The survey found similar results in all four states, which will hold the nation's first primaries and caucuses in January. Opposition to cutting Social Security or Medicaid benefits was over 60 percent in every state -- closer to 70 percent in most cases -- with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percentage points.
Of all the states, though, the Florida results hold particular significance because Florida is a crucial swing state in presidential elections, and winning it has a lot to do with attracting the support of its many retirees.
Florida: Stats Don't Favor GOP Positions
Sixty percent of Republican voters in Florida are retired. According to the AARP poll, 44.8 percent rely on Medicare as their primary source of health insurance, and an overwhelming 87.1 percent say that Social Security is or will be important during their retirement years.
Nearly 70 percent said economic issues were the most important consideration in choosing a candidate, and more than 75 percent said they supported the Tea Party. Based on these statistics, it would be natural to assume that a majority of those voters would support at least some cuts to entitlement programs to reduce the deficit -- but that is not the case.
Overall, 66 percent of Florida Republicans said they opposed reducing Social Security benefits for future retirees to help reduce the deficit. The results were consistent among every category of voters surveyed: moderates and conservatives; Tea Party supporters and opponents; economic-issue voters and moral-issue voters; and churchgoers and nonchurchgoers. In fact, there was not one category in which more than 38 percent of voters supported cuts to Social Security.
The opposition to Medicare cuts was even more dramatic. Just over 70 percent of voters said they opposed such cuts, and, again, the results were consistent across every group surveyed. In no group did more than 32 percent of voters support Medicare cuts.
Republican primary voters in Florida believe Social Security and Medicare are critical to the economic security and health care of middle-class seniors in retirement, the GS Strategy Group report said. Despite talk in Washington about cutting Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit, Republican voters in Florida overwhelmingly oppose cuts to the benefits they say they've 'earned' and they 'need.'
Voters: Want Tax Loopholes Closed to Cut Deficit
When given a list of five ways to shrink the deficit and asked to choose one, 40 percent of Florida Republicans said they would eliminate tax loopholes, 34 percent said they would cut foreign aid, 18 percent said they would reduce involvement in wars, and just 1 percent chose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Once again, these results were common to all subsets of Republican voters and to supporters of all candidates.
Voters did favor a variety of policies that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare -- for example, tort reform, cracking down on Medicare fraud, and digitizing medical records to make health care more efficient -- but any policy that reduced benefits or raised the retirement age was a nonstarter.
The opinions of these Republican voters stand in sharp contrast to the opinions of the legislators who represent them.
For example, almost every Republican in Congress has signed Grover Norquist's taxpayer protection pledge to never raise taxes or even to close loopholes unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates. But, according to the AARP poll, most Republican voters -- even those who identify with the anti-tax Tea Party -- would rather close tax loopholes than touch Social Security or Medicare.
U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, recently took a step toward compromise by saying he would be willing to consider closing loopholes to raise revenue -- but only in exchange for entitlement reform, which is exactly what voters want to avoid.
From a purely fiscal perspective, the Republican insistence on entitlement reform is logical: entitlement programs account for about 40 percent of federal spending, according to the Office of Management and Budget. But, unlike politicians, most voters do not look at Social Security and Medicare as numbers on a balance sheet.
Voters don't see these as math problems, said Jeff Johnson, the AARP's interim Florida director. They see them as the basis for their retirement.