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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Americans and the Obama Tax Cut Compromise

Where do Americans stand on the tentative agreement reached between President Obama and Republican leaders on the expiring Bush era tax cuts? I have not seen new public opinion research data conducted entirely since Obama's announcement Monday night. But we did ask Americans questions about elements of the agreement over the weekend. Coupled with previous survey results, we can derive a pretty good picture of where the public stands.

The most important thing to recognize: Americans want some type of action taken before the end of the year to avoid all Bush era tax cuts expiring. Americans do not want the tax cuts to go away as a result of the inability of the warring factions in Washington to agree on what to do about them.

I base this conclusion on polling conducted by a number of different organizations. No survey result that I am aware of shows anything but a small minority of Americans opting for a “let all cuts expire” response -- regardless of what the alternatives are. 

Given that it appears unacceptable to Americans to let all of the Bush era tax cuts expire, the issue becomes one of determining which of various suggestions should be followed that would avoid that possibility.

The data suggest that given options, Americans would tilt toward allowing tax cuts to remain for all but the wealthy. This is shown in our Gallup data, and in other polls (see here and here, as examples). Most Americans make under $250,000 a year, the minimum definition of “wealthy” used by President Obama and in most question wordings. It is thus not surprising to find that Americans are OK with higher taxes for these higher-income families.

There is at least one exception to the finding that Americans tilt toward an option that taxes be increased on the wealthy. A Nov. 11-15 NBC News/The Wall Street Journal survey gave respondents four choices, including eliminating all tax cuts permanently, eliminating tax cuts just for those making more than $250,000, keeping the tax cuts for all for another “year to three years,” or keeping the tax cuts in place for all permanently. The results showed that 46% chose one of the two alternatives involving keeping the tax cuts for everyone -- either for one to three years or permanently. A lower percentage, 39%, chose the alternative to eliminate the tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000. (Only 10% opted to let the tax cuts expire altogether.) One issue with this question is that the $250,000+ alternative did not include a time frame. Each of the other three alternatives read to respondents did -- either "permanently" or "another year to three years." This could have made the $250,000 alternative less attractive.

At any rate, it appears that the alternative of keeping tax cuts for most, but not for the wealthy, is in many polls at least slightly more attractive than keeping them in place for all.  (Many of these polls, however, don't specify whether the options would be permanent or temporary, which clouds the interpretation somewhat).

At current time, however, those choices are not the options on the table.  The specific proposition agreed to tentatively by Obama and Republican leaders is for an agreement that would extend all tax cuts for another two years.  We tested just this proposition over the weekend. Our Gallup question asked in referendum style if the respondent would vote for or against a law that would “extend the federal income tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 for all Americans for two years.” We found 66% would vote for this proposition, while 29% would vote against.

This referendum style question deliberately did not provide complex and multiple options for the public to consider. It simply outlined one specific proposition and asked the public how it would vote on it -- either up or down. And a majority of Americans appeared to be OK with it. 

As my colleague Lydia Saad said in her write-up, " . . . the results of the new question suggest that, while the compromise position on taxes may not be their ideal, most Americans would support congressional passage of it."

In this situation, it is possible to argue that President Obama is, in fact, following the people’s will. He has stated that his first preference would be to allow the tax cuts to remain for most Americans but not the wealthy. But, he said, given that this does not appear to be possible, he settled on letting the tax cuts continue for all as opposed to the alternative of letting them all expire. As The Washington Post said in its editorial about what it typified as an "odious" tax deal: "The Democrats should vote for this deal, because it is the only one they are going to get. "

It is important to note that the announced agreement involves compromise. From the general public’s perspective, this is a good thing. The public tilts toward the view that elected representatives should compromise principles in order to get things done. Of course, it’s easier to favor compromise when it favors one’s position that when it doesn’t. In this case, although Republicans are the least likely to favor compromise in general, they most strongly support the proposed solution of extending the tax cuts for two years. Democrats, who favor compromise in principle more than Republicans, are least in favor of this particular solution. That's the nature of politics.

All compromise involves somebody moving away from dearly held positions. Those who feel most strongly about those positions are the ones who will protest the compromise the most. In this instance, liberal Democrats are protesting the loudest on the issue of extending the tax cuts for everyone regardless of income. Clearly, however, the public on average comes down on the side of extending the tax cuts for all if that is the specific proposition on the table -- as it appears it is at this moment.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The American Public and "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell"

1. The U.S. military has released the results of its massive study of military service men and women on the issue of repealing the currently applicable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Interested observers probably would do well by reading through the precise topline of the results, available here. All in all, the respondents were asked 102 questions. The question that has received the most attention is Q62a. Reading through the actual questionnaire document is important, because it gives one the entire context and survey experience the respondents went through. All surveying for this project appears to be have been done online.

2. What about the general American public? Our data suggest that the majority of Americans are OK with openly gay men and lesbian women serving in the military. As they have been for a number of years. We have updated these attitudes three times over the past six years. The question construction we use is as follows: “Do you favor or oppose allowing openly gay men and lesbian women to serve in the military?”

The percentage saying “favor” has gone from 63% in November 2004 to 70% last May -- our latest measurement. Note that 25% say they are opposed, leaving just 5% who say they don’t know.

3. There is some variance across polls on this topic. Pew Research phrases their question as follows: “Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military?” Pew's latest survey, conducted in early November, finds 58% in favor, with a fairly large 16% saying they don’t know.

There is a subtle difference between Gallup’s and Pew’s wording. Gallup asks about “openly gay men and lesbian women” serving in the military. Pew asks about gays and lesbians serving “openly in the military.” It is not clear if this small difference could affect the way respondents answer, but it’s possible. Also, Gallup’s last measure was from May, Pew’s was from November.

4. There are other surveys that have measured these attitudes, with still different results. A recent McClatchy-Marist poll used this question construction: "Do you think the current Democratic Congress should repeal the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy and allow gay men and women to serve openly in the military or do you think they should not repeal it so they continue to serve but not openly?" The results showed virtually an even split, with 47% choosing the repeal option and 48% choosing the "don’t repeal" option.

The question wording used here is significantly different from the Gallup and Pew wording. It asks about a proactive step to repeal an existing law, which may have the effect of dampening positive reactions. It also provides an explicit alternative that reminds respondents that without repeal, gay men and women can still serve in the military.

5. An NBC News/The Wall Street Journal poll asks: "Now, thinking about the military: Let me read you three statements about gay men and women serving in the military, and please tell me which one comes closest to your point of view. I favor allowing gay men and women to serve in the military. I favor allowing gay men and women to serve in the military under the existing 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. I oppose allowing gay men and women to serve in the military." Given these three choices a bare majority of 50% choose the first alternative, 38% choose the second, and 10% the third.

Giving respondents three alternatives can produce different responses than giving them two responses. Again, as was the case for the McClatchy-Marist poll question wording, the NBC News/The Wall Street Journal wording provides respondents with the explicit statement in the second alternative that gay men and women would still be allowed to serve. Also, this wording doesn’t offer much to respondents to explain the difference between the first and second alternative. For those respondents not following this closely, the difference between options one and two may have been somewhat murky.

6. A Quinnipiac Poll conducted Nov. 8-15 finds 58% support when Americans were asked the following: "Federal law currently prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the military. Do you think this law should be repealed or not?"

This question doesn’t give respondents the explicit alternative that gay men and women would continue to be allowed to serve without repeal, just not openly.

7. The bottom line is a conclusion that Americans certainly tilt toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military (or to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the military), although the level of support appears fairly susceptible to being lowered if certain arguments are made in certain ways.

8. Of interest is the breakdown in support for allowing openly gay men and women to serve (based on the Gallup question wording), as reviewed by my colleague Lymari Morales last May.The compelling finding is that a majority of every demographic group included was in favor of openly gay men and lesbian women serving in the military, at least in response to Gallup’s question wording. The range went from a high of 85% support among moderates to 53% support among conservatives. Sixty percent of Republicans favor the proposition.

9. Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not Americans' highest priority for the current lame-duck Congress. We recently included “Passing legislation to allow openly gay men and women to serve in the military” in a list of five issues on which the lame-duck Congress could focus.

Thirty-two percent say focusing on gays in the military is a very important issue, essentially tying it with passing legislation dealing with the children of illegal immigrants -- at the bottom of the list. Forty-one percent said that legislation relating to gays in the military was not too or not at all important. At the top of the list was “passing legislation that would keep the estate tax from increasing significantly next year,” which was seen as very important by 56% of Americans. Half said extending some form of the federal income tax cuts passed under George W. Bush is very important.

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