Budgets & Taxes Messaging


Persuadable voters are extremely conflicted about budget and tax issues.

First the bad news: According to the Gallup poll, Americans think that on the federal level 50 cents of every tax dollar is wasted, on the state level 42 cents is wasted, and on the local level 37 cents is wasted. Remarkably, independent voters think more money is wasted than voters in the Republican base. Not coincidentally, most voters are wildly misinformed about how much governments spend on specific programs, especially for the social safety net.

But there’s also good news: When named program-by-program, with just a few small exceptions (such as federal foreign aid), Americans favor spending more rather than less. They understand we need to spend more for schools, roads, health care and environmental protection—and they know we need to spend less on subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich and special interests. About two-thirds of Americans think that the rich and large corporations are paying too little in taxes.

These conflicting beliefs mean that message framing is especially important when talking about budgets and taxes.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

You favor more spending without being very specific about the program

You favor higher taxes without being very specific that your policy targets the very rich who aren’t paying their fair share

Tax/budget fairness or justice

A level playing field for everyone

A tax/budget system that works for all of us

Rigging the rules, gaming the system, stacking the deck 

Why . . .

Voters are for tax and budget fairness, and so are you. There are a number of phrases that express the idea of fairness, listed above. Whatever you do, express your goal early and often in the conversation—without an expression of progressive values, voters may think conservative policies are the fair ones.

Right wingers try to blame tax and budget problems on the poor, immigrants, government employees or penny-ante cheaters. Voters are perfectly willing to embrace that narrative. It is your job to direct attention to the real problem—that wealthy individuals and big corporations have rigged budgets and taxes on all levels of government in order to further enrich themselves. While arguing for fairness, you need to be explicit in explaining that your policies are designed to take a system that is stacked in favor of the rich and make it more equitable for middle class Americans.

In general, this is what you should say:

Say . . .

Our tax and budget policies must be fair to everyone. The fact is, my opponent’s policies are not fair; they rig the system to benefit the rich over the rest of us. I will work to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. 

Why . . .

This short narrative begins and ends with the value of fairness. It distinguishes you from your conservative opponent and it ties the fairness problem to the rich.

Specifically about state and local budgets

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

There is enough money




There are real limits on what our state/city/county can spend

I support a responsible, balanced budget

Let’s strengthen the state/local economy for the long term

A plan for our future

Why . . .

No matter the actual situation in your local jurisdiction, voters remain worried about budget deficits and government debt. You must acknowledge that you share those concerns and pledge to support a reasonable, balanced budget. At the same time, voters understand that radical cuts are shortsighted and the prudent course is to “strengthen the state/local economy for the long term.” Voters do not respond well to the claim that “there is enough money” to fund new programs. Voters believe governments face very real limits on what they can or should spend, and language that seems to imply a desire to write blank checks will undercut your message.

Talking about budget expenditures as a series of investments doesn’t work because it makes voters think they are consumers of government who should get a personal rather than a community return on that investment. But you can use a related concept—talking about a budget as a plan or blueprint for our future.

Say . . .

Our state/city/county has no money to waste. I will pinch every penny I can to help craft a balanced budget that’s fair to everyone. But remember, a budget is a plan for our future. It’s about what we need to spend today in order to build a better tomorrow. So I’m going to look for solutions that build our state/local economy for the long term. My opponent calls for extreme cuts, which over time will benefit the rich and hurt all the rest of us. I’m for a fair budget that works for all of us. 

Why . . .

This narrative begins by empathizing with voters’ concerns and reassuring them that you are on their side. It focuses on fairness and suggests that the rich are the problem. And it makes the argument that we need to build for the future. All of these ideas are popular.

Specifically about state and local taxes

Voters are pretty cynical about taxes. They think that taxes are unfair, and you certainly agree that tax laws have been engineered to unfairly benefit the rich and special interests. So don’t defend taxes, defend tax fairness.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Tax relief

Taxes are a necessary evil

Tax fairness

Tax giveaways and tax loopholes

Private tax subsidies

Rigged system

Why . . .

Don’t say tax relief because it frames taxes as an affliction in need of a remedy. The problem is not the existence of taxes, it is that federal, state, and local taxes are riddled with giveaways and loopholes for the politically powerful. You might also call them private tax subsidies. Whatever you do, don’t defend the unpopular tax system. And don’t begin with a raft of statistics either. Start by empathizing with voters.

Say . . .

Our tax system is unfair. The tax burden on working families has increased while rich people and large corporations pocket more and more tax giveaways, and that’s wrong. My opponent’s policies would make the current rigged system even more unfair with greater tax cuts for the rich. My policies are based on the principle of equal opportunity—everyone should pay their fair share.

Why . . .

No one likes to pay taxes, and persuadable voters don’t want to hear a lecture that taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society. But people reluctantly accept that they should pay their fair share. Interestingly, a progressive monologue about taxes becomes less popular if it begins with unfairness and then goes on to say what government could do with the money. This is because persuadable voters don’t really believe the government needs more money; they believe one-third to on

e-half of tax dollars are wasted. Talking about the good things government can do with the taxes it collects also evokes voters’ biases against tax-and-spend politicians. So stick with your plea that the powerful need to pay their fair share.

Here’s an illustration of how to use this language to respond about a specific tax:

Say . . .

You asked about eliminating the inheritance tax. First, let’s admit that our tax system is unfair. It is rigged with tax giveaways and loopholes that benefit a few, usually the rich, at the expense of all the rest of us. So if we eliminate the inheritance tax, who benefits and who’s hurt? For every two hundred people who die, only the estate of the single richest person pays any federal tax at all. Eliminating that estate tax means enriching that one wealthy family, but it also means hurting all of us because our taxes would be raised to make up the difference. My opponent’s policy would make the current rigged system even more unfair with yet another tax cut for the rich. My policies are based on the principle of equal opportunity—everyone should pay their fair share.

Here are a couple of debating points you may have to deal with:

Right wing argument: Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no taxes.

Say . . .

Everyone pays taxes, although it’s true that children, the elderly, and the unemployed generally don’t pay one particular type of tax—the federal income tax. Nevertheless, everyone who earns a salary pays taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Everyone who buys products at a store or owns a home pays taxes. Everyone who has a telephone or cable service pays taxes. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. But, the fact is, the richest one percent of people own over one-third of all the combined wealth in America—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all the wealth. They do not pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes.

Right wing argument: Our government is paying too much for social welfare programs.

Say . . .

The great majority of government spending on individuals is for programs like Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits where Americans have already done their service or paid their money into the system. They’re not getting a hand-out, they’re getting what they are owed. The real hand-outs are subsidies and tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit the richest individuals and biggest corporations. That’s what we need to cut. 

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