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News Accounts May Overstate Public Opposition to Bailout

Still, [Bush] acknowledged yesterday that the measure presents lawmakers with “a difficult vote” barely a month before the November elections. Polls show the bailout is hugely unpopular, and lawmakers have been inundated with calls and e-mails from angry constituents.

That is a line taken from today’s page A1 article in the Washington Post, which like many articles this morning, asserts that the bailout is exceptionally unpopular and politcal dead weight to whomever might vote to pass it. But the reality is somewhat more complicated. While some polls show opposition to the bailout, others show indifference or lukewarm support. These result principally from differences in question wording, as the public does not know very much about the bailout (neither Presidential candidate did a good job of explaining it to them on Friday night) and is heavily swayed by the tone of the question.

For instance, Rasmussen asked yesterday:

“Do you favor or oppose the economic rescue plan now being negotiated by Congress and the Bush Administration?”

Among Rasmussen’s respondents, 50 percent said they opposed the plan and just 24 percent said they supported it. But, take a look at how the question is worded. The plan is described as a “rescue”, a more neutral term than “bailout” but one that nevertheless has negative connotations. (Although, a more appropriate term is hard to think of. “Stabilization” probably goes too far in the other direction). But little supporting detail is provided to the respondent, other that two very unpopular instiutions (The Bush Administration and Congress) are mentioned.

At the other end of the spectrum is a poll put out by the Pew Research Center that frames the bailout thusly:

“As you may know, the government is potentially investing billions to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure. Do you think this is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to be doing?”

When the question is framed in this way, 57 percent of people support the bailout, as compared to 30 percent who opposite it. But here, on the other hand, the proposal has arguably been spun in a favorable way to the respondent. The warm term “secure” is used, but there is no description of the amount of money involved, nor whom the money will be going to.

Browsing through the other polls on the bailout, you will see many different attempts to frame the question, all of which produce somewhat different responses. I have no opinion about which of these framings is most appropriate, but articles that describe the bailout as “hugely unpopular” are probably overstating the case. To say that the polls report uncertainty and skeptcism over the bailout would probably be closer to the mark.


At the same time, it is worth noting that the Rasmussen poll postdated the Pew poll by three days, and that public opinion on the bailout may be changing, probably for the worse. This is in large part, I would argue, because the proposal has been referred to colloquially as the “bailout” or very commonly the “Wall Street bailout” (the latter term brings up more than 7,000 hits in Google News). Where is Frank Luntz when you need him? If the proposal had instead been framed as, say, an “economic recovery” plan, it would probably be far less politically toxic.

There is a very weird sort of prisoner’s dilemna here. Namely, anyone who tries to frame the plan — although framing the plan properly would probably make it more popular — risks taking ownership of the plan, a plan which even if framed properly, probably remains unpopular enough to constitute a political liability. So no parties have an incentive to “spin” the plan as a positive, and as such, it continues to become more unpopular as the default narrative (“Wall Street bailout”) is left unchallenged. The bailout, whether it ultimately passes or not, will likely be studied by game theorists for years to come, as there are conflicting and somewhat self-contradictory incentives (everyone wants the package to pass but nobody wants to vote for it) between no fewer than a half-dozen different parties.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.