In his paper, Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind, Larry Bartels studies the mystery of why most Americans support repeal of the estate tax, even at the same time that they believe the rich should pay more in taxes.
For example, as described in Bartels’s article for The American Prospect,
In the sample as a whole, almost 70 percent favored repeal [of the estate tax]. But even among people with family incomes of less than $50,000 (about half the sample), 66 percent favored repeal. . . . Among people who said that the difference in incomes between rich and poor has increased in the past 20 years and that it is a bad thing, 66 percent favored repeal. . . . Among people who said that the rich are asked to pay too little in federal income taxes (more than half the sample), 68 percent favored repeal. And, most remarkably, among those respondents sharing all of these characteristics — the 11 percent of the sample with the strongest conceivable set of reasons to support the estate tax — 66 percent favored repeal.
Bartels’s basic explanation of this pattern is that most people are confused, and they (mistakenly) think the estate tax repeal will benefit them personally.
His explanation sounds reasonable to me, at least in explaining many peoples’ preferences on the issue. But I wonder if ideology can explain some of it, too. If you hold generally conservative views of the economy and politics, then the estate tax might seem unfair–and having this norm of fairness would be consistent with other views such as “the rich should have to pay their share.” The point is that voters don’t necessarily think in terms of total tax burden; rather, they can legitimately view each separate tax on its own and rate it with regard to fairness, effectiveness, etc.
Statistically, I’m envisioning a mixture model of different types of voters, some of whom support tax cuts for ideological reasons (I don’t mean to “ideological” negatively here–I’m just referring to those people who tend to support tax cuts on principle), others who support the estate tax repeal because they (generally falsely) think it benefits them, and of course others who oppose repeal for various reasons. A mixture model might be able to separate these different groups more effectively than can be done using simple regressions.