Be Careful What You Ask: Gallup’s Warning to States About Balancing Budgets

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A recent Gallup report came with this headline: “Americans’ Message to States: Cut, Don’t Tax and Borrow.”

It’s one of those definitive statements that appear at first blush to give a solid direction from the public to its elected leaders. Upon closer examination, however, the conclusion turns out to be another example of “pollster-manufactured” public opinion, rather than a realistic assessment of what the public is thinking.

One reason Gallup found the public so willing to cut programs rather than raise taxes is that the options offered to respondents were both vague and limited – vague in what proposals were offered to respondents, and limited by not including other plausible options.

Here is Gallup’s set of questions:


Gallup’s March 2011 poll asked poll takers how they would “help balance” their state’s budget. (Credit: Gallup)


In this set of questions, Gallup forces the respondent to treat each item in isolation from the other. But the reality is that lawmakers are usually faced with a range of options and combinations. And when given different answers to choose from, the public often recognizes the need for such combinations.

For example, when the ABC/Washington Post poll asked about the federal budget, one of the questions their poll posed was similar in intent to what Gallup asked about the state budgets. But the question offered the option for the respondent to choose a combination of approaches, thus producing a much different picture of the public from what Gallup described.


Most of ABC/WaPo’s poll takers said they would combine cutting federal spending and increasing taxes to deal with the federal budget deficit. (Credit: ABC/WaPo)


The poll shows that about a third of respondents opt to follow only one course of action – just cutting spending (31%) or just increasing taxes (3%), but a substantial majority (64%) see a need to do both.

Had Gallup asked the same question about the state budget deficits, almost certainly it would have obtained similar results. If most people recognize that balancing the federal budget requires a combination of spending cuts and increased taxes, they are also likely to see the same solution at the state level.

And with the results above, Gallup could well have come to a different conclusion and headline: “Americans’ Message to States: Public Sees Need for Both Tax Increases and Spending Cuts.”


Vague Proposals to Balance the Budget

Another problem with the Gallup question wording: The proposals for states to balance their budgets are so vague, it’s difficult to know what respondents really mean when they say they support, or oppose, them.

For example, in Gallup’s chart above, the action receiving the greatest public support is “reducing or eliminating certain programs.” However, no specific programs are mentioned. It is much easier to show a consensus for the general principle of reducing programs than to find a consensus on reducing any given program.

The most recent ABC/Post poll demonstrates this principle quite clearly. It reports that “state governments have little leeway in terms of public support for cost-cutting measures…the choices are so poor [most choices receive so little support] that raising or enacting taxes, while far from popular, are among the less unpopular options.”

That conclusion is based on asking respondents to evaluate 12 proposals to reduce state deficits. Overwhelming majorities (three quarters or more) oppose laying off public school teachers, police officers, or firefighters; closing or limiting access to state parks; cutting Medicaid; and cutting state aid to public schools. Substantial majorities (60% or more) also oppose reducing spending on roads and other infrastructure, and laying off state employees.

Bare majority support is reported for only two of 12 items: freezing pay of state workers, and reducing pension benefits for new state workers, hardly sufficient actions to balance state budgets.

Given this more extensive polling, it seems premature for Gallup to conclude that the public supports cutting programs as the only way for states to balance their budgets.


Taxes on Higher Incomes

Both Gallup and ABC/Washington Post polls asked respondents if they supported tax increases to balance the state budgets, and both polls reported substantial majorities opposed. Neither poll included an option to increase taxes on higher incomes, however, though an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests support for such taxes is quite substantial for balancing the federal budget.

The poll reports that “placing a surtax on federal income taxes for people earning over one million dollars per year” is supported by 81% of Americans. It also found that “phasing out the Bush tax cuts for families earning $250,000 a year or more” was acceptable to 68% of the public. A similar question at the state level would no doubt produce similar results.


Manufacturing Public Opinion

As the results make clear, Gallup’s headline that states should cut programs, and not increase taxes or borrow money, is hardly a comprehensive and realistic assessment of what the public is thinking. Other polls show that most people see the need to increase taxes as well as cut programs articles, and that some tax increases are popular, while few proposals to cut programs are embraced.

The state of public is opinion is much more complicated than the simple conclusions drawn from one poll.

It’s in this process that pollsters “manufacture” public opinion – by unrealistically limiting choices that respondents can choose, by offering vague proposals that are difficult to interpret, and then by reporting their interpretation of the results as though each poll produces a definitive picture of public opinion.

Poll watchers beware!



David W. Moore is a Senior Fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and was a senior editor with the Gallup Poll for thirteen years. He is author of  The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls (Beacon, 2008; trade paperback edition, 2009). Publishers’ Weekly refers to it as a “succinct and damning critique…Keen and witty throughout.”

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Be Careful What You Ask: Gallup’s Warning to States About Balancing Budgets

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