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Polling Done Right On The Deficit

Linda Hirshman is a retired Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at Brandeis University and a columnist for She is at work on Victory!, a book about the gay revolution.

A couple of polls released last week asked people about the tension between stimulating the economy and reducing the deficit, and turned up the politically charged report that people overwhelmingly (58 percent to 35 percent; 52 percent to 41 percent) favored reducing the deficit over stimulating the economy. This sounded strange to me. Looking at all the questions in the NBC poll, which came out first, I found that in two other questions people still chose fixing the economy from a list of choices as the first priority of government, with the deficit a weak second choice (34 percent to 19 percent). And I suggested here that the results that got all the press might be the product of a loaded question, asking people what, in their point of view, the government should worry about more.

Now the usually reliable folks at Pew have done the hard work of asking about stimulus vs. deficit without loading the question, and their results are quite different than the snapshot that got all the press last week. Instead of offering the public an elaborate scenario in which they were asked to probe their innermost feelings and choose a position that accords with their "point of view" about what should worry the government more, as NBC did, Pew asked: "If you were setting the priorities for the government these days, would you set a higher priority on ‘spending more to help the economy recover' or ‘reducing the budget deficit'" (rotating the choices). Forty-eight percent of those questioned put a higher priority on spending more to help the economy recover, while 46 percent chose reducing the deficit. Pew explained the difference between their results and the answers the other two polls turned up:

"A number of recent surveys have attempted to gauge whether deficit concerns are eroding support for government spending to stimulate the economy, but the findings of these efforts are mixed. There is little doubt that Americans are worried about the deficit, but not surprisingly with such a complex issue, the way questions are worded clearly impacts how the public views the debate." (emphasis added)

The only question that remains now, of course, is whether the media outlets that trumpeted the anti-spending results of their loaded questions will tell the public what people say when they aren't being guided to an answer.

--Linda Hirshman