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Majority of Americans Willing to Make Defense Cuts

May 10, 2012

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In a unique study, a representative sample of Americans were shown the size of the defense budget from different perspectives and presented with arguments that experts make for and against cutting it. Three quarters of respondents favored cutting defense as a way to reduce the deficit, including two thirds of Republicans as well as nine in 10 Democrats.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)

Respondents were also presented with information about the defense budget's nine major areas, including arguments for and against cutting each of them, and given the chance to increase or decrease the amount budgeted. Majorities made cuts in all nine areas, though majorities of Republicans made them only in six.

Overall, respondents composed a defense budget for 2013 that was significantly smaller than for 2012, with an average cut of 18%. Republicans cut an average of 12% and Democrats 22%.

The arguments for and against cutting were developed in consultation with experts, including advocates for opposite positions. In all cases both sets of arguments were found convincing by substantial majorities, suggesting that these arguments were strong and respondents considered them seriously.

The study was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) in collaboration with the Stimson Center's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and the Center for Public Integrity's National Security program. The study was fielded with a representative sample of 665 American adults who are part of the nationwide panel of Knowledge Networks.

Other polls on defense spending have mostly asked simply whether respondents favor or oppose defense cuts, and generally found smaller numbers favoring cuts. Steven Kull, director of PPC, comments, "This suggests that Americans generally underestimate the size of the defense budget and that when they receive balanced information about its size they are more likely to cut it to reduce the deficit."

Majorities said that defense spending was more than they expected when it was presented in comparison to other items in the discretionary budget (65%), to historical defense spending levels in constant dollars (60%), and to the defense spending of potential enemies and allies (56%).

However the amount of defense spending was more consistent with expectations when presented in comparison to Social Security and Medicare and in terms of historical trends as a percentage of GDP. From no perspective was it less than expectations.

The area cut by the greatest percentage was nuclear weapons, which respondents reduced an average of 27% (Republicans 18%, Democrats 35%). The area that was cut the most in dollar terms was for existing ground force capabilities which was cut an average of $36.2 billion (Republicans $23.8 billion, Democrats $44.5 billion) or 23%.

Steven Kull adds, "What is striking is that it appears that the American people, unlike Congress, are able to thoughtfully recognize the validity of arguments both for and against cutting defense spending and still come to hard and even bold decisions."

Eight in ten favored cutting the Obama administration's proposed budget of $88 billion for 2013 war spending in Afghanistan. Overall, on average it was cut 40% or $35 billion.

Modest majorities favored cutting specific weapon systems. Given arguments for and against cancelling these systems and information about the related costs, 54% favored cancelling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (though 52% of Republicans were opposed). Fifty-two percent favored cancelling the development of a new long-range bomber (Republicans were divided) and 59% favored not building a new aircraft carrier and allowing the number to decline from 11 to 10.

However, 56% opposed cancelling the V-22 Osprey (Democrats were divided), and six in 10 opposed eliminating bombers as one of the three mean of delivering nuclear weapons.

Views were mixed on options for cutting military healthcare (TRICARE). Six in ten favored reducing healthcare costs by having military families and retirees increase their co-pay for drug prescriptions to a more typical level (cutting another $3 billion). However, there was not majority support for increasing the premiums of military retirees younger than 65, or raising the cap on out-of-pocket expenses for military retirees.

Views were also mixed on cutting personnel costs. Six in ten favored slowing the growth of (but not reducing) the tax-exempt allowances military families receive for housing and food (a $6 billion dollar savings). A slight majority (52%) favored a proposal for reducing military pension benefits (a $9 billion dollar savings), though Democrats were divided. Majorities of both parties opposed capping the rate of growth of military pay at half a percentage point below increases in private sector wages.

How the Study Was Conducted

The study was fielded April 12 to 18 with a sample of 665 American adults (margin of error plus or minus 3.8%, accounting for a design effect, plus or minus 4.8%). It was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection. More technical information is available at http://www.knowledgenetworks.com/ganp/reviewer-info.html.


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