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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The President's Forthcoming Forum

President Obama has announced plans for a “Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth” to be held at the White House on Thursday, Dec. 3. The president will use the forum as an opportunity to " . . . hear from some of the best and brightest CEOs, small business owners, and financial experts about ideas for continuing to grow the economy and put Americans back to work."

The announcement continues: "During these difficult economic times, we have a responsibility to consider all good ideas to encourage and accelerate job creation in this country."

This is excellent in theory. It is hard to argue with the premise that one should consider "all good ideas."

I had the thought upon perusing this announcement that something was missing. The White House invitation list apparently does not include average Americans. The "bright CEOs" and financial experts on the list already have many forums through which they can make their opinions heard. Obama’s advisers need do nothing more than take notes on CNBC and Bloomberg broadcasts to get a good dose of their opinions. (Small business owners perhaps less so.)

It would be nice to expose the president and his team to some thinking from the legions of average Americans who are toiling in the trenches out there. The ones who are worrying about their jobs if not actually losing them.

But wait! Perhaps I was jumping the gun. Immediately after the Forum, we are told, Obama will be traveling to Allentown, Pa. There he will kick off a “White House to Main Street” tour. Through which the president can “take the temperature” of what Americans are experiencing.

This, too, is excellent in theory. However, it's unfortunately not likely that the "temperature" the president will be taking is going to be very representative. The good citizens of Allentown (lovely town though it is) do not constitute a random sample of all Americans. It's not likely to be a totally natural, unrestrained environment. It's also not likely that the Allentownians with whom the president comes in contact will be a random sample of the greater Allentown metropolitan area.

Hopefully Obama will still be able to pick up a few ideas. Particularly if he is able to exercise some control over the typical “politician’s disease” of seeking to be understood first, rather than to understand. It takes a disciplined politician indeed to listen rather than to explain.

The cynical among us might shockingly argue that it is not the sole, or even primary, purpose of these efforts to actually obtain new information. Much of what any elected official has to do in today's political environment is as much for show as it is for substance.

Regardless, the idea that the president is, in theory, opening his mind to new input on the economy and jobs is to be applauded.

The topic of focus for the Forum and the 'White House to Main Street' tour no doubt reflects Obama’s advisers cognizance of the fact that the economy and jobs remain the most important problem for Americans. We know also that only 8% of Americans believe that now is a good time to find a quality job, a new low.

We know that job creation in the country's businesses has inched back up a little from its nadir, but is nowhere near where it was in 2008. The percentage of employed workers who say their companies are hiring is just barely above the percentage who say their companies are firing.

Our latest USA Today/Gallup poll shows that Obama’s ratings on handling the economy have fallen to a new low. Obama’s advisers have certainly also noted that the public is not thrilled with the idea of turning to “more government money” as the way to fix the problem.

An interesting NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that just a little more than one-third of Americans believe the government has not done enough to improve economic conditions. The same poll also shows that given two choices, Americans say the president and Congress should “worry more about keeping the budget deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover” than “worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future.” By a two-to-one ratio.

Tellingly, a Gallup headline in mid-August was “Many Americans See Stimulus’ Costs, Not Benefits.” Americans are not enamored with the idea of pouring government money into the economy to help stimulate it.

This past weekend we bypassed CEOs, pundits and financial experts and went right to the American people with this basic question: "In your opinion, what would be the best way to create more jobs in the United States?" The preliminary results suggest that average Americans have some very interesting suggestions. We’ll be releasing those results in detail next week, just before the Forum.

We learn things through casual conversation at parties and chatting around the water cooler. Similarly, the president may learn some things at his Forum and travels around the country. I would hope the president and his advisers would also attempt to gain insights using more systematic procedures. I.e., augmenting their temperature taking exposure to average Americans with a little more exposure to scientific summaries of where the public stands on issues. Which we, and many other survey researchers, have available in abundance.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Readers Write In

Here are responses to questions asked by a number of readers who have taken the time to write in with a comment.

Several people have asked for the breakout of presidential approval by demographic groups. This, in fact, is on our Web site, going back to the beginning of Obama’s term. We update it every week. The percentage approval of President Obama among blacks has generally been in the 80-90% range consistently all year.

Others have asked about variations in the percentage of blacks in the Gallup Daily tracking three-day averages. This is carefully monitored, as is the sample composition based on age, gender, region, and education. All of these demographic characteristics are weighted as necessary to conform to census calculations. The percentage of blacks in the Gallup Daily tracking samples is generally right at about 11%.

In response to one final point made by several readers: The fact that presidential job approval was hovering around 50% off and on for a period of time without dropping below that mark is purely a coincidence. Presidential job approval has also, if one looks at it the other way, been at 55% several times since mid-October, but has not gone higher than 55% in that time period. This, too, is a coincidence. And, of course, Obama’s job approval has been below 50% for the last four days.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Response to Rush Limbaugh's Claim

Rush Limbaugh stated on his radio program Thursday that several polls have shown President Obama’s job approval rating to be below 50%, while Gallup’s has not. Limbaugh then stated: “Gallup has it [Obama’s job approval rating] just teetering there on the little teeter-totter at 50%, and they're doing everything they can, they’re upping the sample of black Americans, to keep him up at 50% in the Gallup Poll.”

This statement is a complete and inexplicable fabrication. Gallup has a 70-year history of providing unbiased, scientific measures of public attitudes. Gallup is not now, nor has it ever, modified its data in order to achieve any desired result.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Public Opinion Still Important in Healthcare Debate

Overheard at a gathering of pollsters Thursday night in New York City: “The healthcare debate has moved beyond public opinion at this point.” The debate, it was opined, is now all about politics. With the public cast aside, waiting docilely on the sidelines to see what happens.

Of course, that’s not totally true.

Politics ultimately comes down to elections. Through elections, people make their voices heard. Elected representatives stay tethered to the public because they stand for election. At least, in theory. Representatives and senators always, always have elections in the back of their minds.

Case in point. A piece in The New York Times Wednesday reports on the the tough decisions facing Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln re the healthcare bill. Lincoln is a Democrat who faces a tough re-election battle next year in a generally Republican state. The views of the voters of the state of Arkansas are very much on her mind as she contemplates the implications of her vote on this volatile issue.

Notwithstanding elections, public opinion should help guide the healthcare debate in other ways. That’s because public opinion is an appropriate and effective input into decision-making. Collectively, there is wisdom in the views of the public. Wise leaders take advantage of that wisdom.

Speaking of that wisdom. Americans still fail to see the benefits from a new healthcare bill. This has been a consistent finding in our Gallup polling. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 19% of Americans say that “if the health care system is changed” the quality of their healthcare will get better. Thirteen percent of those who are insured say that their health insurance coverage will get better. (Forty-seven percent of the small percent in the Washington Post/ABC News sample who do not have health insurance say that their ability to get health insurance will get better.) More than half of poll respondents say their costs will go up, while just 11% say they will decrease. Even more say the overall costs of healthcare in this country will increase under new healthcare legislation.

Lawmakers can profitably ask “why don't people see the benefits?” Particularly because the stated goal of healthcare reform is explicitly to make things better. ("President Obama is committed to working with Congress to pass comprehensive health reform in his first year in order to control rising health care costs, guarantee choice of doctor, and assure high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.")

[Read this comprehensive list of benefits from the White House Web site. Most Americans would agree that these are admirable goals.]

Yet, our Gallup data, and many other polls, simply don't show that the public has come to the point where they agree that these benefits will be forthcoming if a new bill is passed. There is an apparent disconnect between the well-meaning efforts of the administration/Congress and the perception of those efforts by the average American.

So. A set of questions for senators and representatives to ponder as the debate moves forward:

1. Why do almost all polls show that less than half of the public supports passing new healthcare legislation?

2. Why do most Americans believe that the bill will not help them personally?

3. Why do less than half of Americans believe that the bill will help the nation as a whole?

To get at this in more detail, we recently asked Americans to tell us their concerns about a new bill -- in their own words. (See here for my detailed analysis).

These concerns coalesce into four categories:

(1) Costs. Americans have specific worries about the impact of a new bill on their personal costs of healthcare (despite the fact that the bill as passed by the House has the word“affordable” prominently in the title).

(2) Government involvement and bureaucracy. There are basic concerns about the implications of the federal government taking up an expanded role in this sector of the U.S. economy.

(3) Worries that the specific legislation could make things worse rather than better for many Americans’ healthcare.

(4) Worries that the bill won’t go far enough in expanding access to healthcare.

These concerns actually provide a pretty good guideline for Congress. One would think that -- knowing the concerns -- Senators and representatives should be able to provide specific responses. If they can do so, perhaps the percentage of Americans who believe a new bill would benefit them (and the nation) would go up, and support for the bill would rise concomitantly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

D.C. Sniper's Execution Raises Issue of Death Penalty Again

The “D.C. sniper” -- John Allen Muhammad -- was put to death in Virginia this past week. He was convicted of murder as part of the infamous sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. Ten people in total were killed.

Predictably, the high profile execution resurfaced the continuing debate over the death penalty. The United States is one of the five countries around the world that account for more than 9 out of 10 documented executions (along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan).

One interesting set of reactions (brought to our attention by Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today in her “Faith & Reason” column) was summarized by Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News. Slater rounded up the opinions of religious leaders in Texas on the issue. (Texas leads the nation in executions.) Not surprisingly, most religious leaders were against it. Typical of the dozens of more secular reactions was a post by Brian Gilmore of The Baltimore Sun: “D.C. Sniper Should Not Be Executed.”

The facts are that 35 states in the nation allow the death penalty; 15 do not. That’s a 70-30 split. This roughly reflects American public opinion, which is running at the moment 65% to 31% in favor of the use of the death penalty in cases of murder. Indeed, half of Americans say that the death penalty is not used often enough. No sign of rising opposition to the death penalty in our continuing Gallup trends.

Many of those who argue against the death penalty believe that Americans are misinformed. Or ill-informed. With the corollary assumption that once better informed, Americans' views on the death penalty will shift.

The data do not necessarily support that assumption.

One core argument against the death penalty is the documented fact that innocent people have been executed. The wrongful conviction is bad enough. But if the individual is put to death, there is no way to seek redress if at a later point in time DNA or other new evidence proves that person's innocence. There’s not much that can be done to redress a miscarriage of justice if the person subjected to the miscarriage is dead.

Yet my review from a month ago casts some doubt that this line of persuasion can massively shift public opinion. There is already agreement by the majority of the American public that innocent people are wrongfully executed. But, as I put it: “ . . . for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty.”

The data, in fact, show that more than half of those who say an innocent person has been executed simultaneously also support the death penalty. In other words, a not insignificant percentage of Americans appear able to live with what might appear to be a cause of at least some cognitive dissonance. Increasing the public's awareness of the possibility of innocent people being sent to their deaths would not appear to cause an instant turnaround in opinion on the death penalty.

Two final facts. Almost 6 in 10 Americans say that the death penalty is applied fairly. A majority of Americans consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Abortion, Healthcare Legislation, and the People's View

One of the most contentious issues involved in last weekend’s House debate on healthcare was abortion. Conservatives managed to get a clause in the bill that would prohibit federal money from being used to pay for abortions through any plan, public or private.

This was viewed as a victory by "pro-life" groups. It was viewed as a significant setback for abortion rights groups (“...Obliterates Women's Fundamental Right to Choose”). Some liberal House members are fighting back. According to news reports, “ least 40 House members furious about 11th-hour change have since threatened to torpedo the bill if the abortion language remains.”

As the The Hill put it: “Activists on both sides believe they can prevail in the Senate.” The Hill quotes Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy for Planned Parenthood, as saying: “We’ve got millions of pro-choice voters and when our voters get unhappy, they take action.” The article also quoted National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson as saying that senators who support abortion rights are “not going to vote for public funding of abortion in this public glare.”

All of this contention now moves to the Senate. An Associated Press news account looked ahead to the Senate debate and predicted: “Abortion Could Roil Senate Health Care Debate” in their headline.

Even President Obama got into the act, delicately arguing that he was not comfortable with the abortion restrictions inserted, saying that “we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices.”

For those Senate and House members looking for guidance from the American people, what can we tell them?

I would say first that abortion is always a hot button issue. Like many values issues relating to life, death, marriage, and sex, it has enduring connections to Americans’ emotions and passion. It is an intense issue for those who feel strongly about it on either side. Hence the vituperation from both sides now.

It is not, however, a high priority issue for the broad American public. In our latest November update, less than 1% of Americans mentioned abortion as the most important problem facing the country. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll included “social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage” in a list of seven potential priorities for the federal government to address. The results? Social issues was dead last in the list, chosen by only 3% of respondents as the top priority for government.

And on the topic itself? The majority of Americans remain in the middle on abortion. Given a three-part choice, the majority of Americans say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. A minority of 21% say it should be legal in all circumstances. A slightly smaller group of 18% say it should be illegal in all circumstances. (There has been a shift to the more conservative stance on the issue. The percent of Americans wanting abortion to be totally legal was routinely in the mid-twenty percent range earlier this decade. And as high as 33-34% in the early 1990s.)

Follow up questions show that the majority of those saying there should be restrictions on abortion say abortion should be legal “only in a few circumstances.” It would thus appear from the data that the majority of Americans would, in theory, be OK with federal legislation that restricts abortion, as long as it doesn’t outlaw it completely. We have no research yet that asks Americans specifically about abortion in this most recent incarnation of the healthcare bill.

There are major political divisions in views on abortion. Republicans are much more likely to respond to survey questions about abortion in negative ways than are Democrats. So the partisan nature of the battle lines drawn on abortion and healthcare legislation are not surprising.

One of the major groups pushing for abortion restrictions in healthcare legislation was the Roman Catholic Church. As Peter Wallsten from The Wall Street Journal summarized: “Injecting itself aggressively into the healthcare debate, the Roman Catholic Church in America has emerged as a major political force with the potential to upend a key piece of President Barack Obama's agenda. Behind-the-scenes lobbying, coupled with a grassroots mobilization of Catholic churches across the country, led the House Saturday to pass an amendment to its healthcare bill barring anyone who receives a new tax credit from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion, a once-unthinkable event in Democrat-dominated Washington.”

Fighting abortion is, of course, a core component of official Catholic doctrine (“The Catholic Church has always condemned abortion as a grave evil”).

However, that official Catholic policy does not appear to be disproportionately representative of rank-and-file Catholics across the country. Catholics taken as a group (about 25% of Americans) are no different from all Americans on their position on abortion.

To be sure, highly religious Catholics are more opposed to abortion than less religious Catholics. But so are highly religious Protestants more opposed to abortion than less religious Protestants. Those seeking to keep abortion funding out of the Senate version of the healthcare bill therefore will find support from the Catholic hierarchy and from highly religious Catholics. But an appeal on the abortion issue to the average Catholic will be no more likely to find receptive ears than an appeal to all Americans.

Women? I was interested to see this statement by the MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press Sunday: “It’s the biggest restriction on abortion access in this country in a generation . . . I think you can expect Democratic women to sit on their hands at least if not revolt if that doesn’t get take out in conference.”

Maddow refers to Democratic women in her statement. But the implication of her statement seems to mirror a common conception that women in general are more supportive of abortion rights than are men. This is not generally backed up by the data. There seems to be minimal gender differences in abortion attitudes. In Gallup’s mid-July survey on abortion, for example, women were very slightly more likely than men to pick both extreme positions on Gallup’s classic three-part question. In other words, women may have a little more intense feelings on abortion, but it skews in both directions.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage, Climate Change, Unemployment

There are several election and legislative events this week that we can put in the context of American public opinion.

Maine voters on Tuesday passed a referendum (“Question 1”) which repealed Maine’s same-sex marriage law. Supporters of same-sex marriage had hoped this would be the first situation in the nation in which voters (as opposed to legislators) went to the polls and said yes to same-sex marriage. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Maine would, in theory, seem to be a pretty good place for same-sex marriage supporters to gain a victory. It’s the 11th most liberal state in the union by our Gallup calculations. These calculations are based on the percent of residents in each state who say they are “liberal.” Which, in Maine, is 24%.

This may still not seem very liberal. It is low on an absolute scale, but not on a relative scale. The highest “liberal percentage” of any of the 50 states is in Massachusetts, at 29%. The lowest is Louisiana at 14%.

To flesh out the picture, 38% of Maine residents are moderate and 36% conservative. So conservatives do, in fact, outweigh liberals in Maine. That’s the case across the nation. The 36% of Maine residents who identify themselves as conservative is quite a bit lower than Alabama, which has more conservatives -- 49% -- than any other state in the union. For comparison, the states with the lowest identification as conservative are Vermont and Hawaii, with 29% each.

At any rate, Maine is, on a relative basis, a liberal state. But the voters there still did not end up favoring same-sex marriage in their state.

The sentiment of voters in Maine on the same-sex marriage issue is reflective of the sentiment of the nation as a whole. Despite some fluctuation over the years, a majority of Americans have continued to say “no” in response to our Gallup trend question that asks: “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?”

We update this every May, in our Gallup Poll Social Series survey on moral values. There has never been a time when we have found less than a majority saying no to legalized same-sex marriage. This past May, 57% of Americans answered negatively. Forty percent said yes.

However. There has been a general trend toward greater acceptance of gay marriage over the years. There were times in the mid 1990s when two-thirds of Americans said “no.” Despite this trend, this year’s numbers are actually a little more conservative than the previous year. This corresponds to similarly more conservative trends on a number of moral issues this year, perhaps in a push back from the election of a more liberal president.

All in all, it appears that if the issue of legalizing gay marriage came to a national referendum, it would -- mirroring the vote result in Maine -- go down to defeat.

There has been some legislation action this week on climate change. The Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a climate bill with essentially zero participation from Republicans. (In fact, there was a boycott by the Republican senators on the committee.) The climate bill the EPW committee came up with would produce a 20% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, the chair of the committee, put forth a wonderfully positive explanation of the benefits of the bill, saying that it would “.... move us away from foreign oil imports that cost Americans one billion dollars a day, it will protect our children from pollution, create millions of clean-energy jobs, and stimulate billions of dollars of private investment.”

Seemingly hard to argue with. But the American public, as I discussed in some detail here, is actually becoming less worried about climate change than more so. Underscoring our Gallup findings, a new study by the Pew Research group recently measured the same trends. As Pew put it: “There has been a sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. And fewer also see global warming as a very serious problem -- 35% say that today, down from 44% in April 2008.”

Also, very few Americans -- 1% to be exact -- mention the environment as the nation’s top problem. There has, in short, been little measurable positive impact on Americans’ consciousness from the intense effort that has been put into raising public awareness of global warming in recent years. Perhaps Al Gore’s new book will help change that. But the efforts in the Senate to move toward a climate change bill -- not likely to happen before the Copenhagen conference -- are occurring in an environment, so to speak, in which that subject is not the top priority of the American public.

Finally, the government near the end of the week announced a new program to help the employed by extending unemployment benefits. President Obama quickly signed it into law. This is very much in sync with the public’s priorities for the president. And the public’s views of the most important problems facing the nation today.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ross Perot Redux

Ross Perot, you will remember, made the federal budget deficit one of the major centerpieces of his 1992 campaign for president. He received 19% of the vote. That’s not an insignificant showing for an independent candidate. Perot’s personal wealth is not insignificant either. His personal budget deficit is decidedly in the black. He sold his company to General Motors in 1984 for $2.5 billion. Last month, the second company with which he has been involved, Perot Systems, was sold to Dell Computer. According to reports, the sale could net the Perot family another $954 million.

At any rate, I discovered that despite business distractions, Perot is still with us on the political front. He continues to focus squarely on his old nemesis, the deficit.

Check out the "Perot Charts" Web site, which focuses primarily on the types of charts he made famous in his 1992 campaign. (Albeit today with fancy computer graphics instead of the cardboard charts he used to point to in his famous TV commercials.) One of the primary focal points on the site is the deficit, or, as Perot calls it, “the enormous national debt.” He points out that we are leaving this for our children and grandchildren to deal with.

Here’s a screen shot of one of his charts.

I bring this up because The New York Times recently reported the following: “Faced with anxiety in financial markets about the huge federal deficit and the potential for it to become an electoral liability for Democrats, the White House and Congressional leaders are weighing options for narrowing the gap, including a bipartisan commission that could force tax increases and spending cuts.”
In other words, it’s not just Perot fighting a quixotic, lonely war on the deficit battlefield these days. Others are getting antsy about the issue. So much so, according to the report, that Democratic leaders are trying to head it off at the pass as a campaign issue.

How much of a priority is the deficit to the American public? Mixed feedback. Gallup’s open-ended "most important problem" question last month showed that only 5% of Americans spontaneously mentioned the deficit as the country’s top problem. It was dwarfed by the economy, jobs, healthcare, and the government more generally. (9% mentioned the deficit in September; back in January 1996, 26% mentioned it as the nation’s top problem.)
The deficit makes a stronger showing when it is mentioned specifically to respondents in a list.

A recent Gallup/USA Today poll gave Americans five issues and asked which one should be Barack Obama’s top priority as president. The federal deficit was one of a group of three issues that received roughly the same 14% to 18% of choices (along with healthcare and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). The economy won, and virtually no one mentioned energy.
In a September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the deficit was third in a list of seven issues, behind only healthcare and the jobs/employment. The deficit was chosen more frequently than energy/cost of gas, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and values issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. A September Bloomberg poll also showed the deficit coming in behind healthcare and the economy.

To some degree, it appears, the budget deficit is a latent issue with the public. Maybe not top of mind, but a concern when brought up.

The size of the budget is mathematically related to the level of government spending and tax revenue. It seems pretty clear that to “reduce the deficit,” one must spend less or bring in more revenue. Tax revenue can boom if the economy booms, as happened in the late 1990s, when there was no deficit at all for one brief, shining moment. Or, of course, tax rates can be increased.

At the moment, rather than a reduction in government spending, the path appears to be one of an increase in spending. By doing nothing, the ongoing juggernaut of entitlement spending through the Social Security and Medicare programs will also ensure that government spending increases. No immediate signs of budget deficit relief there.
Reducing the deficit is generally an unpleasant task for the government if it involves raising taxes or reducing spending. The Times article puts it thusly: “There is no indication that more liberal Democrats have any appetite for deep spending cuts or further tax increases in the coming year as the party battles to maintain its majorities in the House and Senate in the 2010 midterm elections.”

Americans certainly will agree with the idea of raising taxes on the rich. But otherwise Americans would indeed probably frown on the idea of "further tax increases." And government spending is already a significant concern to Americans.

Hence the idea to form a commission to study the idea, which to some degree "turf's" (see here) the issue. Commissions sometimes work as a way to accomplish politically unpleasant tasks. And sometimes they don't.

Ross Perot would be 81 if he were to begin to campaign for the presidency in January 2012. This would appear to be an unlikely course of events. So the deficit will be an issue in the forthcoming presidential election for Obama and his Republican challenger to deal with.
Obama himself does not get great marks on the deficit. Just 31% in a recent Gallup poll say he will be able to control federal spending.
Is there an opening for the Republicans here if the Democrats don’t manage to get a political handle on the situation through a commission or some other way? Unclear. Republicans are certainly making it a centerpiece of their current positioning. But the deficit soared under George W. Bush, which makes it harder to argue that reducing the deficit is a Republican signature strength.

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