The strongest relationship, by far, was between people’s expectations about the budget deficit and their expectations about their own taxes. However, the direction of this relationship was precisely the opposite of what straightforward fiscal logic would suggest: people who expected higher taxes under Obama also expected a bigger budget deficit under Obama, other things being equal, while those who expected higher taxes under Romney also expected a bigger budget deficit under Romney. This peculiar association was strongest among people who were relatively uninformed about politics; but it was easily the most important single determinant of deficit expectations even among people with above-average levels of political information.If you think that your taxes will be lower, then you also think that the deficit will be lower. Huh?
It makes little sense, of course, if you think that budget deficits are the mathematical difference between federal government revenues and disbursements.
However, if you think of deficits as "economic bad stuff", then it makes perfect sense. Paying less taxes means less economic bad stuff, and therefore smaller "deficits." It also makes sense then that there's a correlation between economic growth and smaller deficits. Of course, that works using the real definition of deficits, too, since economic growth does in fact increase government revenues and therefore lowers deficits. But Bartels also finds only weak correlations between spending and deficits, which makes more sense under the "economic bad stuff" definition -- since public opinion in general is fairly split over whether government spending is a good or bad thing. The only bit which doesn't seem to work as well is that Bartels reports a somewhat higher association between Medicare and Social Security spending and deficits than between either domestic or defense spending and deficits, given that presumably Medicare and Social Security spending are more popular (although on the other hand, it doesn't really make sense that respondents would differentiate at all between different types of spending and the deficit).
So great stuff from Bartels and YouGov, and I definitely recommend that you read the whole thing, but I'm still waiting for some survey research which investigates what the public believes federal budget deficits are in the first place.