Do Americans Support Obama’s Tax Cuts Deal? Depends How You Ask

December 13, 2010 3:37 am

Two-thirds of Americans want the Bush tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest to expire at the end of the year, according to one recent poll. But in another poll, two-thirds of Americans want to extend all of the Bush tax cuts — including those for the country’s top earners.

How can that be possible? The answer is all in the poll question’s phrasing.In a Rasmussen poll released Friday, a majority of likely voters said they supported the tax cut compromise between President Obama and Republicans that was announced last week. That proposal would extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years in exchange for a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, among other things. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said they supported the deal, while 29% said they were opposed.

However, the wording of the poll did not allow respondents to specify an alternative option they preferred, nor did it indicate that any other proposals — such as capping the income level at which tax cuts are extended — are on the table. Rather, it provided an all-or-nothing question, framed in fairly rosy language.

The survey asked:

President Obama and congressional Republican leaders have reached an agreement that extends the Bush tax cuts for all Americans for two more years, cuts the Social Security payroll tax rate for one year and renews long-term unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months. Do you favor or oppose this agreement?

Similarly, a Gallup poll released last week found that 66% of adults nationwide would vote for a full extension of the Bush tax cuts if they had a direct say in the matter, versus 29% who said they would vote against such a measure. That poll, like Rasmussen’s, did not provide an alternative option. The poll asked only if respondents would “Extend the federal income tax cuts passed in 2001 for all Americans for two years.”

Yet when the question is phrased inversely, the results flip.

In a Bloomberg poll released last week, 59% of respondents said they favored allowing the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire, compared to 38% percent who opposed ending those tax cuts. Those results came in response to a question that asked only if respondents supported, “Eliminat[ing] tax cuts the wealthiest Americans have received in recent years.”

When multiple options are presented, the results become more nuanced.

A recent CBS News poll found that, given the choice, a majority of American’s favored the proposal by Congressional Democrats to extend only the tax cuts up to $250,000. The poll asked:

Which comes closest to your view of the tax cuts passed in 2001? 1. The tax cuts should be continued for everyone, 2. The tax cuts should only be continued for households earning less than $250,000 a year, or 3. The tax cuts should expire for everyone.

Only 26% of respondents said they favored extending all the tax cuts, while 53% favored extending them only for those earning under $250,000 a year. An additional 14% said they would like to see all the cuts expire.

Similarly, 44% of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted in late November said they would extend the tax cuts up to an unspecified cap, versus 40% who supported a full extension. Thirteen percent said they would prefer extending none of the tax cuts.

Even among multiple-choice polls, there is some divergence depending on the question’s framing. The same Bloomberg poll cited earlier included a follow-up question that asked which tax cut proposal would be “best for the economy.”

When the question was phrased not as a matter of personal preference, but in terms of what would benefit the economy as a whole, 19% said they preferred extending all of the tax cuts, 34% favored extending them only up to $250,000, and 27% supported allowing them all to expire “to help cut the deficit.”

So while there are plenty of numbers floating around on the tax debate, one thing is clear: it’s not a matter of who you ask, but how you ask.

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