By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Just one in four Americans are following closely the debate over the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to kick in on Friday, according to a new Washington Post-Pew poll, numbers that serve as a reminder that although talk of the sequester is dominating the nation's capital, it has yet to permeate the public at large.
Not only are most people paying very little attention to the sequester, they also have only the faintest sense of what it would do. Less than one in five (18 percent) in the Post-Pew poll say they understand "very well" what would happen if the sequester went into effect.
Those remarkably low numbers come despite the fact that the debate over the sequester has dominated Washington for much of the last month and, in the past week or so, President Barack Obama has cranked up the direness of his warnings about what it could do to the economy.
The lack of interest and knowledge about the sequester stands in contrast to the level of engagement the public showed in the last crisis — the fiscal cliff. In Pew polling done in the run-up to the cliff, 40 percent of people said they were following the negotiations "very" closely, while roughly three in 10 said they had a very strong understanding of what it would mean for themselves and the country if we went off the cliff.
What explains the difference between sequester and the cliff? At first glance, it appears to be the fact that, without tax increases included in the sequester, most people don't think it will really affect them. Just 30 percent of those tested say sequestration would have a "major effect" on their own financial situation — a contrast to 43 percent who said the same about the fiscal cliff. The lack of a tax increase component in sequestration (Democrats do want some increases in revenue, but mostly through closing loopholes) is seen most clearly among Republicans — with just one in five following news about the automatic cuts "very closely." Twice as many Republicans followed the fiscal cliff battle in December very closely.
(While it is impossible to document via polling, we believe strongly that people have less of a sense for sequestration than they did for the fiscal cliff because it lacks a catchy name. Never underestimate the shallowness of the American public's news consumption habits.)
The sea of numbers above should serve as a reminder that, for most Americans, the sequester doesn't exist. All of the talk about it coming out of Washington about whom to blame is lost on these people — another fight in the nation's capital that they don't believe will have any actual impact in their lives.
(For what it's worth, the poll shows that 45 percent say Republicans in Congress should be blamed for the sequester, while 32 percent blame Obama. That's a far less sizable edge than the 26-point blame-game advantage that Obama enjoyed over congressional GOPers on the fiscal cliff.)
Whether the lack of interest and knowledge regarding the sequester will change once it actually hits later this week remains to be seen, although these numbers suggest it's got a long way to go to even be a relevant issue for most people in the country. A very long way.
The poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 21-24, among a random sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.