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A new poll shows why it's so hard to pass a soda tax

soda

Soda taxes have a pretty dismal record at the ballot box — and a new poll helps explain why.

In recent years, voters in multiple cities have rejected the idea of levying an additional fee on sugary beverages — like soda, sweetened ice tea, or sports drinks — to discourage consumption and reduce obesity.

Only one American city — Berkeley, California — has managed to pass a soda tax, although Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is now pursuing a similar plan.

Polling data suggests a clear reason these soda taxes face long odds: Americans are genuinely, truly split on the idea of taxing sugary drinks like soda — no matter how you look at the numbers.

Support for soda tax doesn't align clearly with any one ideology. Democrats are split on soda taxes, and so are Republicans. Men and women are split pretty evenly, as are old voters and young voters. Soda taxes are the rare tax issue on which those who do and don't identify as Tea Party supporters hold pretty similar views.

This might speak to why public health advocates have faced such a struggle passing soda taxes: There's no key constituency they can count on for support.

Three charts that show Americans are split on soda taxes

Our poll, conducted by the nonpartisan technology and media company Morning Consult, asked 1,976 voters whether they support taxing soda at a higher rate "in order to discourage individuals from purchasing" it.

Overall, 45 percent of respondents either supported or strongly supported soda taxes — and 49 percent opposed or strongly opposed.

Democrats and Republicans differ slightly when it comes to soda taxes — but not by much. Exactly 50 percent of Democrats expressed some level of support, compared with 44 percent of Republicans.

That's a 6 percentage point gap between Republicans and Democrats, which makes soda taxes pretty different from many other health policy issues.

There are clear party positions on issues like Obamacare and abortion, for example. And on those topics, voters tend to be pretty polarized — they may have gravitated toward the particular party because of these policy positions or, if they consider themselves Democrats, take cues from the party platform.

But that's not true for soda taxes. Perhaps because they're newer, they haven't polarized in the way other issues have. The two Democratic contenders for president are currently split on soda taxes. Party identification doesn't give voters a clear guide to how they should vote.

Here's what happen when you look at Americans who do and don't identify as Tea Party supporters — you see a similar split.

Finding a group with strong support for soda taxes is tough

Combing through our findings, the one group that supported soda taxes by the widest margins seems to be self-identified liberals. But even there, support isn't especially strong; 55 percent support a soda tax, compared with 40 percent of self-identified conservatives.

This chart helps explain why the first soda tax succeeded in Berkeley; it is a city whose name is essentially synonymous with liberalism.

But it also explains why soda taxes have failed elsewhere: Most voters don't self-identify as liberal (in our poll, 34 percent chose this label). Soda taxes, right now, don't have a clear coalition that can be counted on to turn up in support — while the beverage industry will certainly show up in opposition.

You can read the full poll results here.