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The Stimulus: Still Popular After All These Weeks

I’ve seen it asserted, assumed or alleged in many places that the stimulus package is hemorrhaging public support and might become something of an albatross around the Obama administration’s neck. While I don’t doubt that the stimulus could become unpopular down the road, the there is little evidence that it is unpopular in the here and now.

All polling of the stimulus to date, in fact, has shown at least a plurality and usually a majority of Americans in support, with margins varying depending on question wording, how the pollster constructs its sample, and so forth.

The most pessimistic result for the stimulus package comes from a poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports, which pegs the stimulus as being supported by 42 percent of likely voters with 39 percent in opposition. This represented, moreover, a modest decline for the stimulus from a week prior, when Rasmussen found 45 percent of likely voters in favor and 34 percent opposed.

Rasmussen, however, has shown considerably narrower margins for the stimulus than other polling conducted during the same period. Gallup, for example, showed the stimulus preferred by a 52-37 margin, with essentially no change in support from a similarly-worded poll conducted in early January. And a Democracy Corps poll shows the stimulus with wide support, with 69 percent in favor of the initiative against just 24 percent opposed.

In short, there is some evidence — the trendline in the Rasmussen poll — that the stimulus has become less popular. There is no evidence, on the other hand, that the stimulus has become unpopular; on the contrary, the preponderance of polling evidence suggests it remains a course of action that most of the public likes.

Why the stark difference between Rasmussen and, say, Democracy Corps? Both are applying a likely voter methodology, whereas Gallup and most of the other polls on the stimulus are surveying all adults. I understand the argument that likely voters are the ones who matter from the standpoint of electoral politics — but determining who is and who isn’t a likely voter when there is no election at hand is a little abstract for my tastes. (Are these people who are likely to vote 2010? In 2012? People who were likely to have voted in 2008? Or what?) This is one situation where I’d trend to prefer the major news orgs’ polling, as they tend to place more emphasis on just this sort of issue-based polling as opposed to the horse race stuff.

At the same time, with the Republican position having been in heavy rotation on the airwaves, it would not be surprising if the package is losing some support. However more liberal the country might or might not have become, a figure like $800 billion is never going to be an easy sell, and the sheer number of budget items included within the stimulus provides plenty of talking points for the opposition. As Scott Rasmussen argues, moreover, it is Barack Obama — not the Congressional Democrats — who is going to need to be the key salesperson on the stimulus. But Obama has been cautious — perhaps overcautious — about using his political capital on the recovery package.

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