Lessons of stimulus polling

Polling around the recently signed economic recovery bill affords an opportunity to tease out some lessons about public opinion:

Partisanship Reigns (Or, Do Leaders Lead?) — Regular readers will not be shocked to learn that partisanship heavily conditions voters’ attitudes toward the stimulus. According to Gallup, while 82 percent of Democrats supported the plan as it was being signed, they were joined by just 28 percent of Republicans — a vast 54-point partisan gap. The ABC/Washington Post poll reports a slightly larger, 56-point partisan gap, while Pew pegged the gap at 46 points. Independents lounged, appropriately, between the two sets of partisans, with support ranging from 49 to 61 percent, depending on the poll.

The trajectory of opinion also points to the role of partisanship. As more Democrats learned their party’s position, support jumped 15 points while it declined by six among Republicans. Independent support remained consistent. Of course, this could also be evidence that leaders have influence, with followers altering their views as leaders make their respective cases.

Different Questions Yield Different Answers — Because no one did a split sample experiment, this point is difficult to prove, but it seems likely here, as it is definitively true in other instances. ABC/Washington Post recorded the highest level of support for the bill after describing the plan as spending “$800 billion on tax cuts, construction projects and aid to the states and individuals to try to stimulate the economy.”

Gallup simply asked about “a new economic stimulus package of at least $800 billion Congress is considering” and showed less support than either ABC/Washington Post or CNN. CNN’s question invoked both Congress and President Obama, while adding specifics — the bill “will attempt to stimulate the economy by increasing federal government spending and cutting taxes at a total cost to the government of about $800 billion.” Friends at Fox were on the low end of support after prefacing their question with one describing the “stimulus and spending plan that Congress passed last week that includes nearly $800 billion of taxpayer money.”

Never mind the oddity of Fox counting tax cuts as “spending taxpayer money.” The lesson seems clear: Questions that just mention $800 billion and Congress elicit less support for the stimulus than those that offer a fuller description of the purpose, while noting both tax cuts and spending were part of the package.

And yet, on any given day, commentators discussed these polls as if they were measuring support for the identical proposal. Since CBS/New York Times found only 40 percent having heard a lot about the plan, it is a fair bet that many respondents were not reading from the same hymnal when they answered the question.

Americans See Past Their Own Pocketbooks — It is fashionable in some quarters to suggest that voters evaluate any and every public policy in terms of its personal impact on them. Not so. Voters are perfectly capable of separating their personal interest from the national interest, and did so in the stimulus debate. Few Americans think the bill will help them, yet majorities favor it because they believe it will help the country as a whole.

Just 24 percent told Fox interviewers the plan would help them personally, but 49 percent said it would help the economy and 51 percent actually supported it. A slightly larger 31 percent predicted they would personally benefit in CNN’s poll, but 53 percent foresaw significant improvement in the nation’s economy resulting from the bill, which earned support from 60 percent.

Voters favored the stimulus not because they thought it would help them — they didn’t — but because they believe it will help the country, and the national interest ultimately proved a stronger call than personal interest.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.