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‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ Versus the S-Word

There have not been very many polls recently about proposals to stimulate the economy — perhaps a signal of how the conversation in Washington has shifted toward deficit reduction. Nevertheless, we can get some basic sense of how the major elements of President Obama’s American Jobs Act poll.

Basically, we are going to see three major themes here:

1) The White House is probably going to want to talk about specific elements of the proposal, while the Republicans will argue against it in general terms.

2) Republicans are going to want to use the s-word, spending — or another s-word, “stimulus” — while the White House will talk about job creation.

3) The polls are liable to produce highly divergent results based on differences in question wording. For this reason, in my analysis below, I have included more detail on the precise questions asked than I usually would.

The largest single element in the proposal, about $240 billion of a total of $447 billion in spending, would consist of extending and expanding cuts in payroll taxes.

The only recent survey on the topic, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week, had 40 percent of respondents in favor of the the cuts and 20 percent opposed, with a large number of Americans undecided.

I have also included polls conducted on the payroll tax from last December, when a one-year extension was adopted. A CNN poll at the time had a 62-to-36 majority in favor. But an ABC/Washington Post survey had much different numbers, with respondents opposing the measure by a 38-to-57 margin.

Note, however, that The Washington Post’s question began with the three-word phrase “Cutting Social Security.” I suspect that a lot of respondents heard these words and did not listen to the rest of the question. Nevertheless, the fact that payroll taxes are the financing stream for Social Security may be the source of some critiques of the proposal from Democrats in Congress.

Another $140 billion in the bill consists of infrastructure spending. Two recent questions on the subject, one focusing on road construction and the other more general, have it polling reasonably well, with about 50 percent of Americans in favor of the proposals, 25 percent opposed and 25 percent undecided.

Extending unemployment benefits, another $49 billion in spending, was an overwhelmingly popular idea in December. Two more recent polls, however, suggest that Americans may be losing patience, with only narrow pluralities in favor:

Finally, a small amount of expenditures in the bill would consist of job-training programs. One pollster included a question on such a proposal and found it to be quite popular:

Although the polls on the specifics of the bill are not without ambiguity, in general they look decent for the White House. And that is no surprise, really, since the broad acceptability of these proposals was presumably among the reasons that the White House picked them.

But what about the bill as a philosophical matter? Are Americans going to be tolerant of proposals for new spending after having spent six months hearing about deficit reduction?

Well, it depends on how you ask them. A dozen polls since the first of the year have juxtaposed different priorities against one another, for example, “reducing unemployment” against “reducing the deficit,” one of which would speak favorably to Mr. Obama’s bill and the other less so.

The good news for Mr. Obama: when the issue is framed as one of jobs against deficits, jobs win. On average, polls that ask Americans to prioritize “creating jobs” or “reducing unemployment” against “cutting spending” or “reducing the deficit” have had 57 percent of respondents coming out on the jobs side, against 36 percent who prioritize the deficit:

The answer changes, however, when the conflict is instead framed as stimulus or recovery spending against deficits. In polls that employ the term “spend” or “spending” in describing the additional stimulus, its support drops to an average of 44 percent, with 50 percent saying that deficit reduction is the higher priority:

It is no surprise, then, that in his speech on Thursday night, Mr. Obama used the term “job” or “jobs” 39 times, often preceded by “create” — but never uttered the word “stimulus.” He did say “spend” or “spending” a number of times, but usually to describe his having reduced spending during the debt-ceiling negotiations rather than about any new proposals. Nor, at any point during the speech, did Mr. Obama specify the cost of his program.

We are likely to see a real semantic scrum over the next few weeks as partisans seek to define the territory that the bill occupies. Pollsters, whether knowingly or not, will be a part of that battle. I would advise them to use multiple question variants where possible, taking a larger sample and splitting it into halves or thirds, and I would advise readers to be suspicious of articles that cherry-pick one or two polls without discussing the broader context.

As for whether Mr. Obama actually has a chance to score policy victories rather than political points: well, the smart money probably argues against his winning the cooperation of the Republican Congress, especially with his approval rating just above 40 percent.

I suspect, however, that in order of plausibility, Congress is most likely to approve the job-training programs, which are cheap and have a bipartisan lineage, followed by the payroll tax cuts, which Republicans may appear hypocritical in arguing against. An extension of unemployment benefits may be less likely, and substantial infrastructure spending less likely still.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.