Swing Voters and Uncertain Costs

Special Guests: Rich Thau

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This week on Facing the Future we examined what’s on the minds of swing voters with Rich Thau, President of Engagious, a firm that specializes in public opinion research. Thau has been conducting a series of focus groups across the country with people who voted for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020.

Then we talked with Concord Coalition Chief Economist Steve Robinson about his new issue brief on the uncertainties of projecting costs for major new entitlement programs and why some of the projections in President Biden’s budget might understate the potential costs.

Concord Coalition Policy Director Tori Gorman joined me for both conversations.

Thau explained how his focus group work differs from public polling. “A poll tries to count heads and I try to get inside people’s heads. I’m trying to understand why and pollsters are trying to find out how many.”

“We’re generally asking about things that are hot at the moment. We’re trying to understand both politics and policy,” Thau said.

One “hot” topic is infrastructure. On that subject, Thau has found that “generally speaking, they’re supportive of what President Biden wants to do. They’re at least somewhat familiar with it. They recognize that it’s expensive. They do not want to borrow more to pay for it. That is basically hard and fast. They do not want to go into more debt to pay for infrastructure and generally they’re comfortable with soaking the rich; to have wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals pay for the infrastructure. The other thing is that while in broad strokes they know what’s in [Biden’s plan], the specifics kind of elude them.”

With many issues, particularly health care and the debt, Thau has found that swing voters tend to ask about how it will affect them. “Almost every issue, in some ways, becomes personalized. It’s just a question of how. Each one has its own idiosyncrasies,” he said.

In our second segment, Tori and I spoke with our colleague, Steve Robinson, about his research into the potential costs of President Biden’s proposals related to children, including universal pre-K for 3-and-4-year-olds, higher pay for Head Start staff, subsidized childcare for children under age 5, an expanded child and dependent care tax credit, paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and refundable tax credits for children under age 18.

“As I went through each of these proposals,” Robinson explained, “I started with the universe of eligible participants. What if you truly provided care or coverage for everyone? And then, what are the variables in terms of wages or hours…the costs of providing those services? In almost every case, I came up with numbers that were multiples of what the numbers are in the president’s budget.”

Robinson pointed out that this doesn’t mean the president’s numbers are wrong. “We don’t know what the assumptions are [for participation and other variables]. But the point of the exercise is that it shows that assumptions really matter when you’re doing cost estimates.”

“Anytime you’re doing estimates of an unknown, untried program you run the risk of underestimating the cost. The same thing is true on the revenue side. So if you underestimate the costs and overestimate the revenues, when both of those mistakes are added up, the debt and deficit are going to be much higher than you expected,” Robinson warned.

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.

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