Polling the stimulus

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

You may have seen Karl Rove opine in the WSJ that “support for the stimulus bill is falling”, and that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.” He is certainly not the only conservative asserting that the bill is impopular.

I’m not in the super-enthusiastic category myself, if obviously for very different reasons than conservatives have for disliking it. Overall I think the bill doesn’t look bad, though my initial enthusiasm has been damped somewhat after reading, for example, Paul Krugman’s very persuasive commentary. It’s probably not enough, and maddeningly worse than it could have been; but it’s still a whole lot better than nothing, and it does have lots of good stuff in it. So far my layman’s take, which is not exactly the most interesting one.

But what does the American population think? Is Karl Rove right? Unsurprisingly, not quite. An overview of the polls that were conducted in the past two and a half weeks, and explicitly asked respondents to express an opinion for or against the bill.

There are two pollsters that have done more than one poll within this timeframe: Gallup and Rasmussen.

Gallup asked: “As you may know, Congress is considering a new economic stimulus package of at least 800 billion dollars. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this legislation?” All three times it polled the question, it found a majority in favor, and in the last iteration, on the 10th, that majority had grown from 52% to 59%.

Rasmussen asked: “Do you favor or oppose the economic recovery package proposed by Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats?” It found strikingly different results.

According to Rasmussen, in late January a narrow plurality of 42% was in favour; a week later the roles were reversed, with a plurality of 43% in opposition; and by the 11th a plurality of 44% was in favour again.

Three other pollsters asked a variation of the same question at some point in these last two and a half weeks.

A CBS poll queried respondents: “Would you approve or disapprove of the federal government passing an economic stimulus bill costing more than 800 billion dollars in order to try to help the economy?” They approved by 51% to 39%.

A Pew poll asked respondents: “From what you’ve read and heard, do you think [the economic stimulus plan being proposed by President Obama that may cost about $800 billion] is a good idea or a bad idea?”. It found a narrow majority of 51% saying it was a good idea; 34% thought it was a bad idea.

A CNN poll, finally, asked: “As you may know, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a bill that would attempt to stimulate the economy by increasing federal government spending and cutting taxes at a total cost to the government of about eight hundred billion dollars. Based on what you have read or heard about this, do you favor or oppose the bill that the Senate is expected to vote on?” 54% said they would favour it; 45% would oppose it.

The most striking thing here is that there is a broad consensus among four of the five pollsters that a narrow majority supports the stimulus bill; while the Rasmussen poll finds distinctly different results.

To put it another way, CBS, Pew and CNN found supporters of the bill leading opponents by margins of +12%, +17% and +9%, while Gallup had them leading, over time, by +15%, +14% and +26% respectively. According to the  Rasmussen polls, however, their margin was respectively +3%, -6% and +4%.

Who is right? There’s never a foolproof way to make sure, but when there is a general consensus among pollsters it’s usually smart to follow the crowd and not put your stock in the one dissenting pollster. But a lot of these things lies in the details of how the poll is conducted. Wording, for example, can be crucial.

In this case, what caught my eyes is that Rasmussen specifically identifies the bill with “Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats”. This seems a good way to arouse partisan passions in the respondents, which will then have the answer to the question break down more strictly by party lines. The Gallup, CBS and CNN polls, on the other hand, merely tie the bill with the more neutral institutions of “Congress,” “the federal government” and “the U.S. Senate”. Pew, finally, mentions Obama but not the Democrats.

These minor differences in wording can have a strong effect. Obama is hugely popular, while the Congressional Democrats, though less impopular than their Republican counterparts, are still not particularly warmly regarded. So maybe it’s not a surprise that Pew presented the most positive results of the polls in the field at the same time.

There is no right or wrong answer here: each wording is factually correct. But Rasmussen’s wording – or if not its wording, something else in its methodology – appeared to have skewed results in an atypical direction.

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