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Breaking Down The Polling Numbers

[ Posted Thursday, July 21st, 2011 – 17:51 UTC ]

Every so often, I like to dig into raw poll numbers rather than merely examining the presidential job approval number on its own, or just looking at the presidential-nomination horserace. Today I'd like to peer into a recent joint poll done by the Washington Post and ABC. To save time, I'm going to avoid talking about either Obama's approval ratings (we do that once a month here, anyway, at or the Republican horserace (which I've done as recently as Monday, if you're interested), and instead focus on all the other questions, most of which are on the debt ceiling debate in Washington.

The full results of the poll -- or, at least, what has been publicly released (some answers have been "held," meaning ABC and the Post are waiting to do a specific story on them, usually) -- can be found on the site, if you'd like to see all the raw data yourselves.

After the presidential job approval question, the second question breaks down the public's approval of Obama's handling of certain issues. The three numbers publicly released are on: "the economy," where Obama scores 39 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval; "the federal budget deficit" at 38/60 approval/disapproval; and "taxes" at 45/47.

These aren't great numbers, to be sure, but then the economy isn't in all that great shape, so they're to be expected. Obama has lost about six or seven percent support on this issue since the beginning of the year. On the budget deficit, Obama's lost five points approval and eight points in disapproval over the course of this year. Taxes are somewhat better for Obama, losing five points approval but only three points disapproval. Nevertheless, a disturbingly downward trend for the president which matches the disturbingly downward trend in the recovery itself.

The only good news in all of this for Obama is that Republicans are doing even worse, on the same subjects. Question three reveals the approval/disapproval rate of congressional Republicans on the economy to be 28/67, even worse on the deficit at 27/68, and slightly better on taxes at 31/65. Obama bests these scores by 11-to-14 points in approval. Which goes to show that Americans are pretty sour in general on both the economy, and on politicians' ability to fix it.

Questions 4, 17, 18, and 22, deal (in various ways) with who will get the blame if the debt ceiling talks collapse and America defaults on its debt for the first time in history. I'm going to save discussing these questions for the end of this article, though.

Question five is an interesting one, pitting Republicans in Congress against Obama on the question: "Who do you think cares more about protecting the economic interests of...." Obama's highest score is 53 percent (to 35 percent for the Republicans) on "middle class Americans." Republicans' highest score is 67 percent (to Obama's 24 percent) on "large business corporations." Republicans also scored much higher than Obama on "Wall Street financial institutions," at 59/26. Obama scored better -- but not overwhelmingly so -- on "you and your family" (47/37). The real surprise was that Obama similarly scored better (48/39) on "small businesses." All of this bodes well for Obama's campaign team, as they are doubtlessly positions Obama will be campaigning on.

The sixth question is sobering, because while everyone knows Americans hold their government in pretty low regard, the numbers are now lower than ever. When asked which of four phrases "best describes how you feel about the way the federal government works," poll respondents chose the negative phrases over the positive ones by a whopping 80 percent to 20 percent. Only two percent chose "enthusiastic," but that answer hasn't gotten higher than seven percent in the past twenty years, to put it in perspective. "Satisfied" was chosen by 18 percent. But the negative answers were some of the highest ever given in the same twenty-year period: 54 percent chose "dissatisfied," and 25 percent chose "angry." The "angry" response hasn't really changed since last summer, even with the 2010 elections in the middle of that period.

Questions 15 and 16 deal directly with the budget deficit (although not specifically the debt ceiling talks). I should mention that questions 7-14 were not released, in case you're wondering about that gap. Both question 15 and 16 ask who ("the leadership of the Republican Party" versus "Obama") has been "too willing or not willing enough to compromise" on the budget deficit.

Obama seems to get fairly low marks (29 percent "too willing," 58 percent "not willing enough," 8 percent "about right") on this question -- until you take a look at the Republican numbers (14 percent "too willing," 77 percent "not willing enough," 3 percent "about right"). That's pretty astonishing -- over three in four Americans think the Republicans have not been willing enough to compromise in the current battle. President Obama himself has been pointing this out, as he pushes the idea of "balance" in the negotiations. Since Obama did make note of the fact that even Republicans agreed with him that there needs to be balance, I have noticed a lot more news media have picked up on such poll numbers.

This is reinforced by the next two poll questions. When asked: "Overall, what do you think is the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit?" and then given three options, respondents overwhelmingly backed a balanced compromise. "Increasing taxes" got only four percent, "cutting federal spending" got 32 percent, but "a combination of both" got an impressive majority of 62 percent.

Question 20 breaks this down, to show how Obama's positions on taxes are actually extremely popular. When asked about nine choices to reduce the debt, Americans showed how strongly they believed in core Democratic principles. In the order of support, these issues ranked (numbers are: percent support / percent oppose):

72 / 27 -- Raising taxes on Americans with incomes over $250,000 a year
66 / 33 -- Increasing the amount of Social Security tax paid by people with incomes over $107,000 a year
64 / 25 -- Raising taxes on people who manage financial investments known as hedge funds
61 / 36 -- Raising Medicare premiums for wealthier retirees
59 / 39 -- Raising taxes on oil and gas companies
46 / 54 -- Gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67
43 / 56 -- Cutting military spending
42 / 53 -- Changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated so that benefits increase at a slower rate than they do now
26 / 72 -- Cutting spending on Medicaid, which is the government health insurance program for the poor

To be quite blunt, most Americans -- better than a two-to-one ratio, in most cases -- are saying quite clearly: "It's time to tax the rich." Every single answer which proposes raising taxes (or Medicare premiums) on wealthier Americans gets a solid majority -- from 59 percent to 72 percent. Every "cut spending" Republican idea gets less than a majority -- from only 46 percent on raising the Medicare eligibility age down to a dismal 26 percent support for slashing Medicaid funding.

In fact, broken down by party support, only one idea from the Republicans breaks into majority support, and one idea from (some) Democrats breaks into minority support. Means-testing Medicare (which Obama offered lukewarm support for last week) has traditionally been (although for the life of me, I can't understand why) a Republican position. Cutting military spending, for the most part, has been a Democratic position. Other than those two, though, Americans are solidly behind what Republicans casually and disdainfully dismiss as "class warfare."

Which, as I said, Obama has been making a habit of pointing out during this whole debate. In fact, he may have set this issue up to be the centerpiece of his campaign last December, when he agreed to only extending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy through the end of 2012 -- an election year. He could have, at the time, pushed it out an extra year, but chose not to. Meaning I expect to hear a lot more of this during the campaign season.

Add to this the response from question 23, and next year's campaign is shaping up to be a lot more interesting than many would have predicted even six months ago. When asked about the 2012 election, Americans showed a pretty low opinion of the incumbents in Congress. In answer to: "...right now, are you inclined to vote to re-elect your representative in Congress, or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?" the poll numbers are pretty sobering for the Republicans who currently hold the House: 30 percent replied that they were inclined to re-elect, while 63 percent responded they'd prefer to "look around." This is the highest "look around" response this poll has ever charted, back to 1989. And, ominously enough for Republicans who think the debt ceiling debate is helping their party, this number is up eight-to-ten points from even last month. That's a pretty big jump in an already disturbingly-high number, for them.

The remainder of the poll deals specifically with the upcoming presidential election and primary season (among Republican candidates). The numbers are more detailed than my normal quick look, but haven't changed much from my overview of the whole GOP primary race earlier this week.

Questions 4, 17, 18, and 22 all deal with the debt ceiling debate specifically. In a nutshell, Americans believe that the debt ceiling fight will be resolved on time (54/43). They also believe that the fallout (should the deadline not be met) will cause serious harm to: "the U.S. economy" (82/16), "the reputation of the U.S. as a safe place to invest" (77/20), and "your own personal financial situation" (60/37).

Questions 4 and 22 deal with who Americans trust in the debt ceiling debate, and who will get the blame if the deadline is not met. Obama is trusted by 48 percent, to the congressional Republicans' 39 percent. The blame (at least at this point) will be laid upon the Republicans by 42 percent, Obama by 36 percent, and "both" by 19 percent.

These last two questions don't show overwhelming support for the president, but they do reflect the other poll questions which show the public is not seeing Republicans in a very good light right now. Republican Party leaders (some of them, at any rate) have been desperately trying to tell the Tea Party wing this fact for the past few weeks, but so far to no avail.

In the court of public opinion, what all of this shows is that President Obama has framed this debate in a much better way than Republicans. That's a truly stunning statement, for those who are familiar with the Democrats normally failing on this score quite badly. Obama has positioned himself as the one willing to compromise, as opposed to Republicans' refusing to give an inch; as "the adult in the room," as opposed to... well... "children" (one would logically have to conclude); and as the one striving for a "balanced" approach, as opposed to what Obama termed a "maximalist" intransigence on the Republican side (mostly in the House).

So far, Obama's got a respectable majority of the American people behind his positions. Contrary to "inside the Beltway conventional wisdom," taxes are proving not to be some sort of "third rail" issue (i.e., "touch it and you die") for Democrats to be championing. The country approves of taxing the rich more than any Republican proposal so far. In fact, they approve of this concept in numbers which show that many Republicans in the country back what Republican politicians routinely deride as "class warfare."

This is but one poll, to be sure. But most of the other polls I've seen this week back up the data presented here. Americans are turned off by Republican extremism, and open to Democrats' willingness to compromise. They are disgusted with the way the lawmakers in Washington are operating, and they may just take out this anger next year at the polls.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Breaking Down The Polling Numbers”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    The entire dispute in this area lies with the definition of "rich"...

    And I'll point out again, if the question is asked, "Do you favor taxing the rich" of course, your average Joe is going to say HELL YEA...

    But if you ask the question as it SHOULD be asked, "Do you favor taxing people and small businesses who make over $250K a year, knowing that such taxes could hurt the job creation efforts", then what do you think the poll numbers would be??

    I am all for taxing those individuals who make over a million dollars a year.

    But Democrats need to start looking at their own, before they come down on the opposition..

    Obama's pet corporation, GE, scored record profits recently...

    How much did they pay in taxes??? Not one red cent...

    If Democrats want a morally sturdy platform to stand on when it comes to "saving the middle class" and taxing the rich, they need to get their own house in order..

    Wouldn't you agree??


  2. [2] 
    akadjian wrote:

    The real surprise was that Obama similarly scored better (48/39) on "small businesses."

    This is great news for Democrats. I also think its an area where they could place much more emphasis.

    Because Republican policies benefit most large corporations. The "rich create jobs" line grows ever more tenuous and people are not buying it anymore.

    This is the most positive news I've seen for the country in a long time.

    What will large corporations do when given a big tax break?

    Same thing they've been doing for years: laying off American workers, outsourcing overseas, and reducing benefits.

    Now if Democrats can take advantage and come up with a plan to truly help small businesses (those who create the most jobs here), they would segment the business community.


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Because Republican policies benefit most large corporations. The "rich create jobs" line grows ever more tenuous and people are not buying it anymore.

    General Electric...

    'nuff said.... :D


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Now if Democrats can take advantage and come up with a plan to truly help small businesses (those who create the most jobs here), they would segment the business community.

    Surprisingly, I completely agree with you on this...

    But that's a pretty big "IF".....


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    RE: your $250K example, see comment I just posted on Friday's column.


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