Raising the Debt Ceiling: a Nation Divided, or Is It Just the Polls?

Polls have not done a good job of communicating public opinion in the debt ceiling debate.  In fact, they made a bad situation worse.

Creating the perception of a divided public

The polls would have you believe that half of America was ready and willing to push a fragile economy into another recession.   A  Pew Research poll published on July 11, shows that more Americans are concerned about the national debt than another economic meltdown. The poll finds that 47% are more concerned about the national debt increasing if the ceiling is raised, while only 42% are more concerned with America defaulting on its debt if the ceiling is not raised.  Given what Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, and most economists regardless of their political stripe, have warned about the immediate economic consequences of default, the concern about the national debt in the near term seems completely irrational.  Is it something in the water they’re drinking, or is it something in the polling?

A closer examination reveals the question was both ill-conceived and poorly analyzed.  It suggested there was conflict and division within the public, when in fact the actual mood was one of compromise — simply wanting to get the problem solved.

Framing the question to find division

That same Pew poll shows that most Americans are concerned about both the national debt increasing if the debt ceiling is raised (78%), and the economy tanking if it isn’t (74%).  These aren’t two different groups in conflict with one another as suggested by the 47%/42% split.  For the most part they’re the same individuals.  It is how Pew Research frames this question (“which of these is your greater concern”) that makes it seem as if the country is divided into two conflicting camps.

Creating a false choice

Equating increased national debt if the ceiling is raised, and the economy tanking if it isn’t, is also a bit disingenuous because it ignores the chronology that makes the two ideas very different.  Raising the debt ceiling is something that needs to be done today.  The national debt problem is hugely complex.  It cannot be solved today.  More importantly, it doesn’t need to be solved today.  Forcing respondents to choose between the two is creating a false choice.  Americans don’t want one of two problems solved; they want both solved, together.

Shifting the focus to compromise

Perhaps sensing the inherent problem with their approach, Pew shifted focus in their analysis of a follow-up poll published in July 26, 2011, from division (” Public Now Divided on Debt Limit Debate”) to compromise (“Public Wants Ceiling Compromise, Expects a Deal before Deadline”).  The poll found that 68% of Americans believe that lawmakers should be willing to compromise, even if it means they strike a deal they disagree with.  Even a majority of Republican voters (53%) favored this “hold your nose” outcome.  Only 23% felt that lawmakers should stand by their principles even if it means the government goes into default.

While the shift in focus is commendable, Pew reported as far back as April that a majority (55%) were in favor of compromise. That should have been the message from Americans to their legislators all along.  It might have saved the country from much unnecessary drama.

Pew was not alone in finding the country divided.  Similar results were reported by other polls e.g., CBS ,Quinnipiac. Framing and interpreting the debt ceiling question as they did, created a message of national division. This fake message was used by Republicans as evidence that half the country was behind them.  In fact, all the public desired was compromise.

The bigger problem–an ill-informed public

Apart from the questionable framing of poll questions, polls have a big problem with the public’s lack of familiarity on the complex economic issues surrounding the debate.  The Pew poll found 41% of Americans confess to a poor understanding (“not too well” or “not at all well”) of what would happen if the government does not raise the federal debt limit.  As consequences were still being hotly debated by economic experts, it’s probably safe to say that even those who indicated they understood the consequences well, probably overstated their grasp of the problem.

Getting informed on a complex issue like the debt ceiling is key to making a sound decision.  A CBS poll found that those who are following the debate very closely showed far greater support (51% to 29%) in raising the debt ceiling than those who were not following it closely.  In effect, the more attention respondents paid to the issue, the more it became apparent to them that raising the debt ceiling was a necessary action.  Rising awareness of the consequences is perhaps the primary cause of the large shift of public opinion in the past few weeks in favor of raising the debt ceiling.  The role of media was critical in this process.

Partisan manipulation of the ill-informed by polls and media

The opposite side of that coin is that when the public is polled on complex topics about which they know little, it is very easy for polls, aided and abetted by intense media coverage, to influence opinion by the language used to formulate the questions. Given that public awareness of the issue ranges from those who are quite knowledgeable to those who know next to nothing, the polls find themselves in a rather tricky situation where in part they’re measuring independently acquired opinion among well-informed respondents, and in part essentially creating it from ill-informed respondents.

The latter is accomplished by framing questions in a way that allow respondents to answer by relying on partisan verbal cues, not on any independent insight on the issue.  The verbal cues are associated with poll answers by means of a conditioning process. This conditioning is driven by an intense media bombardment of partisan positions of the debt ceiling issue emanating out of Washington.  Simply put, if you are Republican leaning, the media conditioned response is “No” to raising the debt ceiling; if Democrat leaning, the media conditioned response is “Yes”.  For ill informed respondents, answering a poll question on an issue they know next to nothing about is made easy.

In part this explains the high partisan correlation with questions related to support for ceiling increases.  Pew found that 54% of Democrats supported increasing the debt ceiling compared to only 27% of Republicans.  A similar partisan outcome emerged in the health care reform debate where, if you believed the polls, Americans were evenly divided in their support of reforms that significantly enhanced health care benefits for most of them.  My earlier post examines in some detail how this situation arose.

Polls need to accurately measure opinion, not to make it

When the issue under debate is complex leaving many Americans confused and uncertain about what positions to take, it is easy for polls driven by intense media coverage to influence these individuals to respond in a partisan fashion that does not reflect genuine, independent opinion on the subject.  In this case the polls simply confirm the success of partisan propaganda campaigns.  Pollsters need to be especially vigilant in how they frame their questions and analyze the data in order to discern genuine public opinion and not polarize public opinion along partisan lines.

On this point, it is troubling that polls and media coverage generally have framed the public choices in the debt ceiling debate as between reducing the debt through program cuts versus severe economic downturn in case of default.  Completely ignored is what most Americans regard as the nation’s biggest problem–the lack of jobs.  Many economists believe this may require significant government stimulus that would temporarily increase the debt.  By ignoring this choice in their questions, the polls have in effect bought into the Republican agenda thus politicizing the outcome.

With a rising chorus of anger, Americans, their patience exhausted, insisted that their seemingly incapable elected representatives do the job for which they were elected.  Maybe some of that anger should be directed at polls that failed to adequately gauge public opinion and helped protract the crisis to the last day.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. How surveys are used in public information has been his interest from day one.
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4 Responses to Raising the Debt Ceiling: a Nation Divided, or Is It Just the Polls?

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