Lesson of the Poll: Ignore the People


The new poll from the LA Times and USC is out, and both parties in California are claiming a popular mandate for the budget stance. Democrats emphasize that the poll shows majority support for Gov. Jerry Brown's general approach to the budget -- with a mix of new revenues and spending cuts. Republicans emphasize the strong opposition to taxes in the poll; only 9 percent of voters want the budget balanced only with new revenues.

But to read the poll, one wonders why either party is declaring a popular mandate. The poll shows that the people's opinion of the budget should have little value. This is not simply because the poll shows how little the public knows about the budget. It's because of the poll's findings that the public thinks it knows a lot about the budget -- even though what little it knows is wrong.

This isn't nitpicking. In case you were living in a cave, you might have noticed that the budget has been cut quite a bit in California over recent years. The cuts have been deep since the Great Recession hit in 2008, with spending falling by more than 10 percent. That's not inflation-adjusted. That's actual dollar-for-dollar spending.

Californians in the poll, however, don't know even this very basic fact. Only 16 percent knew the budget was smaller. Forty-eight percent thought it was bigger. Twenty-two percent thought it had stayed the same. Despite their ignorance, Californians think they know what they're talking about: 75 percent said they had been following the budget debate closely.

Why would anyone trust important budget decisions to people who know nothing about the budget?

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