June 05, 2005

Do Polls Matter? Probably.

I missed this when it came out a few days ago, but Zogby has a new Social Security poll showing heavy support for Bush's plan to privatize the system. 52 percent liked it, 40 percent didn't. Of course, these numbers came after respondents were told that privatization would offer a "better" rate of return than the current system, which is patently false, so there's a bit of heavy fibbing needed to make the sale here. But I'm sure the White House is up to the challenge.

Still, I wonder how influential polls like these really are, especially when it comes to convincing members of Congress to vote one way or the other, or push for this or that reform. My guess is quite a bit, which makes the battle of polls an important one. During the mortal combat over estate tax repeal in the '90s, as chronicled by Graetz and Shapiro in Death by a Thousand Cuts, repeal proponents would put out poll after poll showing that the public favored estate tax repeal, and those polls helped convince Republicans in Congress to push forward on a tax cut that was once nigh unthinkable. What liberal pollsters rarely did, however, was to commission their own polls showing that estate tax repeal was in fact very, very low on the priority list of voters. Public opinion generally ran along the lines of: "Estate tax repeal? Sure, why not! Estate tax repeal instead of more education spending? Um, no." But only the first part of that got any airtime, and that discrepancy really helped shape the debate.

There's a similar dynamic going on with Social Security. Whether or not you think reform would be "nice," there's certainly a lot else that needs fixing first, not least the stomach-dropping general fund deficit. Dean Baker recently put out a list of ten potential catastrophes that will strike long before we'll need to cut Social Security benefits slightly in 2052—the doomsday scenarios range from exploding health care and drug costs to overflowing prisons and global warming—and while some of it's a bit silly and doom-mongering, that's exactly the point! We've got a lot of things to worry about, and it doesn't make much sense to go after what is currently the most financially sound program in the entire federal government.
-- Brad Plumer 5:21 PM || ||