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Democratic Activists Unhappy With Tax Cut Extension, But Ready To Jump Obama's Ship?

First Posted: 12/07/10 05:25 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:15 PM ET

The Obama administration's decision to give in to Republicans on extending all of the Bush era tax cuts is already receiving push-back from some Democrats. But could the deal bring backlash from Obama's donors and supporters in 2012? Today, Gary Sargent reported on a poll of 2008 Obama donors and volunteers by the liberal group purporting to show just that.

According to MoveOn's memo on the poll conducted on Monday by SurveyUSA:

The poll shows clearly that [Obama] contributors are deeply opposed (74%) to a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax breaks for those making over $250,000 a year. The depth of opposition to a deal is severe with former Obama contributors saying that they are less likely (57%) to support Democrats who support this deal in 2012.

According to toplines provided by SurveyUSA, 83% of the Obama supporters surveyed opposed extending the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000, while only 14% supported doing that. In addition, by a 74% to 23% margin respondents said they would not support a deal with Republicans to extend the tax cuts to top wage-earners.

So are Obama contributors really likely to defect in 2012 as a result of the tax cut deal?

MoveOn's memo highlights the 57% of poll respondents who said that they would be somewhat or much less likely to support Democrats in Congress who supported the tax deal and 51% said they were less likely to contribute to Obama's reelection in 2012. Based on the question wording, however, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order about what the poll tells us about how badly this will hurt Democrats. First, take a look at the question wording and answer options:

If President Obama agrees with Republicans to extend tax cuts for the top 2% of wage earners, would it make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to contribute to the Obama re-election campaign in 2012?
"If Democrats in Congress support a deal to extend tax cuts that benefit Americans making more than $250,000 a year, would it make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to support those Democrats in 2012?

The most important thing to note is that respondents weren't offered the chance to choose a "neutral" option - they had to choose between being either more or less likely to support those who favored the deal. For anybody unhappy with the deal to extend the cuts, it would be bizarre to say that the deal made that person more likely to support Democrats. Given the lack of a neutral option, more respondents are likely to express dissatisfaction with the plan by saying they are less likely to support its proponents even if the deal won't ultimately affect their support for Democrats one way or another.

Not only were respondents not offered any neutral option, but they were offered an option to say that they were only somewhat less likely to contribute to Obama or support Democrats - 27% chose that option for the "contributing to Obama" question and 28% chose it for the "supporting Democrats" question. Especially when combined with the lack of opportunity to choose a neutral option, some respondents may have chosen "somewhat less likely" as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction without saying they were much less likely to contribute to Obama or support Democrats in 2012.

Furthermore, the second question doesn't define what "support" means. Are respondents less likely to vote for Democrats in a general election? Support those Democrats in a primary? Volunteer for them? It's unclear.

Finally, it's important to note the population the poll actually reached. The poll surveyed respondents from a sample of registered Democrats in 20 states who had voted in the 2008 election. According to SurveyUSA CEO Jay Leve, the states were selected to be a mixture of "blue" and "swing" states. According to Leve, the sample was further narrowed by selecting only respondents who answered "yes" to the question, "Did you, or did anyone in your immediate family, contribute time or money to help elect Barack Obama?"

So the sample doesn't include contributers from every state, and relied on self-reported donations or volunteering, which can be inaccurate. If respondents were not reliable in reporting their own activities in support of Obama in 2008, the poll is still likely to reflect the feelings of a core group of Obama supporters but may not represent the feelings of the most committed supporters who donate time or money to help campaigns.

Many of Obama's most committed supporters are clearly disappointed in the decision to extend the cuts. That disappointment could translate into disaffection in 2012 - but it's difficult to quantify that disaffection and predict its impact on Democratic candidates based on a poll that didn't give an option for contributers to say their support would be more or less unaffected by the tax cut deal.

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