Cut Deficits Or Spend For Jobs?

07/22/2010 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you have been following coverage of polling on jobs and the deficit this week, you may be a little confused. “The public now sees reducing the budget deficit as a higher priority than increasing government spending to help the economy recover,” the Pew Research Center told us on Monday. But just today, the headline of the Quinnipiac University poll announces that “American Voters Want Jobs Over Deficit Reduction 2-1.” What gives?

I gathered results from media polls conducted in July that have asked respondents to choose in some way between creating jobs or cutting the deficit and created the following table:

Let’s start with the last two questions in the table asked by the Quinnipiac University and Bloomberg/Selzer polls that show the most lopsided support for a focus on jobs and unemployment. If you look closely, the questions are very different than the others in the table, in that they ask respondents to prioritize between unemployment and the deficit as issues, but they do not introduce the idea of increasing government spending in order to reduce unemployment. The latter choice is closer to the policy argument playing out in Washington, but these Quinnipiac and Bloomberg results are still valuable. While Americans are concerned about the growing deficit, they worry about unemployment much more.

Note that while these numbers differ by party, even Republicans are overwhelmingly convinced that unemployment is a bigger issue than the deficit.

When pollsters introduce the idea of spending government money in order to create jobs or benefit the economy, the results narrow considerably, although not consistently. But notice the difference: The CBS News question produces a nearly even split (46% to 47% on jobs vs. the deficit) when it asks about the government spending money “to create jobs,” while the Pew Research/National Journal polls shows a greater preference for reducing the deficit (40% to 51%) versus spending “to help the economy recover.”

Not surprisingly, these results show the usual partisan polarization. Republicans overwhelmingly prefer deficit reduction, while almost as many Democrats prefer an emphasis on jobs and the economy. Independents, as they often do, divide by roughly the same margins as all adults.

My guess is that the more specific emphasis on “jobs” explains the modest difference between the CBS News and Pew/National Journal results. Other results from the Pew Research poll offer a possible explanation: Large majorities believe that the “federal government’s economic policies” since 2008 have done a “great deal” or a “fair amount” to help “large banks and financial institutions” (74%) and “large corporations” (80%), but only 27% say those policies have done a great deal or fair amount for “middle class people.”

These results tell us that most Americans believe the economic policies their government has pursued have helped some sectors of the economy recover while leaving the middle class and unemployed behind. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that a slightly more react favorably to the notion of spending “to create jobs” rather than spending to “to help the economy recover.”

Still, it is not surprising that these sorts of forced choice questions produce inconsistent results based on minor wording differences. My guess is that most Americans see the unemployment and the deficit as complementary problems, and that only a few see the conflict that many economists do between cutting deficits and stimulating job growth. So it can be confusing for many Americans when pollsters ask them to choose. I’d wager that many want to ask, “why can’t we do both?”

PS: I have focused less on the Zogby Interactive question here for two reasons. First, their online sampling methodology has produced consistently less accurate results in pre-election horse race polling since 2004, even when compared to other opt-in, online panels. Second, this particular question is presented in an agree-disagree format which probably creates what pollsters call “acquiescence bias” favoring the agree-spend-to-create jobs response.

Thanks for Ann Selzer for providing results by party for the Bloomberg survey, and a hat-tip to the Polling Report for its compilation of questions on budget deficits and the economy.

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