Where Democrats and Republicans want their tax dollars spent

Last week, I revealed the shocking age divide in where Americans want their tax dollars spent. This week, I’d like to focus on where Democrats and Republicans agree and disagree on how American tax dollars should be spent.

To recap: I’ve been working with the UT Energy Poll on their latest poll for the past month, and I’ve had the chance to preview the issues that Americans think are important when voting for their representatives. This nationally representative poll asks Americans the question, “Where is it most important for the U.S. government to spend your tax dollars?,” and they’re given 8 options:

  • Education
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Health care
  • Infrastructure development/maintenance
  • Job creation
  • Military and defense
  • Social Security

We then break the answers down by various categories such as gender, political affiliation, level of education, etc. to see where Americans differ — and agree — in opinion. Here’s how the poll results look when broken down by political affiliation:

us-overall-political-impt-gov-spending

The options are ordered by overall preference — with “Job creation” sitting at #1 and “Infrastructure” dead last — to show where Americans want to see their tax dollars spent the most overall. The common contentions between Democrats and Republicans immediately reveal themselves in the middle of our national priority list: Democrats favor spending on health care, whereas Republicans would rather see those tax dollars spent on the military.

Republicans are also heavily against spending on the environment, which is an unfortunate political development within the past 20 years. Perhaps the most unfortunate trend revealed in this chart, though, is that no political party seems to think that energy, the environment, nor infrastructure are particularly important to spend tax dollars on. Meanwhile, Social Security sits in second place with both Republicans and Democrats agreeing that it’s important to pour tax dollars into.

With a climate crisis on the horizon and America’s failing infrastructure, we can only hope it’s just a matter of time until can Americans get their priorities straight.


Here’s a version with a more color blind friendly color scheme:

us-overall-political-impt-gov-spending-rdbu

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

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  • TJ

    Great break down and visualization.

    Given the results it would interesting to provide a time series of this considering the political stance prior to an election. Though this also provides a period in which people must be less wishy-washy in their position.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • dennnymack

    Nice graphic. It is pretty interesting to look at the list in terms of public and private goods. Oddly, it is the stuff that is closest to a purely public good (defense, infrastructure) that appears to be lowest priority for gov’t spending, and stuff that is closest to a purely private good (retirement,health care)that is closest to the top.
    I see the question “Where is it most important for the U.S. government to spend your tax dollars?” as being quite distinct from “What is most important to you?” I like reading good books, but I really don’t think the gov’t needs to spend money on that. I am not sure if this list is the best way of ascertaining the electorate’s priorities. “Environment” in particular may be more important than this shows. What would the gov’t buy/pay for if we gave them another 10 billion and asked for “More environment please!” Seems hard to know whether respondents are revealing priorities or confidence in the efficiency of gov’t spending in that area.

  • Jacob Long

    Disappointing they didn’t go with something like using a Likert-like set of response options for each spending category rather than simply ask which is most important. Alternately, if it had been administered via non-telephone, rank ordering those 8 priorities. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from what different people name as TOP priority – what we’d really like to know is how they feel about the other priorities. Are they all a close second? Etc.

    Nice job with the data visualization, nonetheless.

  • a designer

    I like the color-blind friendly version. But why did you use a grid layout with color encoding an ordinal value?

    Color is hard to compare because we see relative, not absolute, differences. For instance, it’s hard to tell who thinks education is more important: moderate republicans or moderate democrats?

    The visual channels of size and position are more powerful than color. You should have used one of these to encode the perceived importance.

    • Interesting thoughts. In many of these charts I made for this project, I actually used bar size to indicate relative importance, for example here. However, in this case I’m trying to display values for so many different categories (48 values in total) that bar charts became crammed for space.

      I used color on a grid here because it provides the viewer a quick glance at trends across two spectra (political party or a specific voting issue). I of course agree that this chart is not particularly useful for making precise comparisons, for example the difference between moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats on Education, but I would argue that such a comparison isn’t particularly interesting in this case; they’re close enough on the issue. This chart instead focuses on highlighting the differences between the parties, which IMO is where the more interesting story lies.

  • Ekinnee

    If they put money into job creation by improving the infrastructure nobody would want the job because it is labor. That means immigrants will tend to take those jobs leading to higher numbers of immigrants legal or not! Oh my!

    At least that’s my theory on why that isn’t a simple answer for the republicans.

  • Ben

    Agree with most of the posts here. The Visualization is well-done, but I’m not sure you can draw your conclusions from your survey questions. Particularly, the claim “[neither] party seems to think that energy, the environment, nor infrastructure are particularly important to spend tax dollars on.” This ranking-style survey question only grants the conclusion that they think certain areas of spending are more or less important than others, not an imperative claim that they are/are not worth spending tax dollars on. This is very clearly illustrated by rephrasing your conclusion as a survey question. If you ask the question “Is the environment worth spending tax dollars on?” I bet alot of Democrats (the vast majority) will say yes. Both sides of the isle in the case of energy, or energy independence. They just think it’s LESS important than social security/job creation.

  • Randy Marsh

    Here’s a fun fact, give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, vote a man in office and he’ll not only give you all crabs, but give your children a math assignment that involves coins, a jar, and the color purple.

  • Max B

    Thank you so much for adding the colorblind chart, I wish more articles would add one for the red-green impaired readers!

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  • Dave N.

    Nice graphs! Unfortunately, with the lack of education spending, few are educated enough to interpret it.

    • I’d like to think that the graph is designed well enough for a lay audience to interpret it. 🙂

  • Sadie Lucas

    Although I don’t know how to provide the exact statistical proof, as a student of Austrian Economics we are taught the main objective on the mind of every career politician is reelection. The term for this is efficacy. In order to be reelected, the politician must raise an astronomical amount of money each day in order to compete and win in the next election. Based on twenty+ years of study, while a politician is in office there is little concern for their constituency. Their primary concern is to raise campaign money from groups with BIG $$ who can benefit from potential legislation passed by the politician.
    The website with supporting statistics and graphs is http://electionstudies.org/nesguide/gd-index.htm. There are several graphs in section 5 – “Support for the Political System” and plainly see the trends of the beliefs of those studied do not reflect increasing support for our present political system.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Thanks for the article. For info on actual people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://www.Libertarian-International.org

    Your chart pretty much comports with what LIO says it’s fans like across all countries. If coerced tax dollars must be spent they should go to basics that better people’s lives, and are more local like education and job creation ( and also so less likely to be abused); but they also focus on the fact that infrastructure, ecology etc. are best handled privately/voluntary taxation.