12/14/2010 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tax Deal Polls: Reactions To A Bipartisan Deal

My colleague Jason Linkins is justifiably baffled by the recent wave of polling on the tax-cut-and-benefits deal cut by President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. On the one hand, a two-week-old CBS News poll found that only 26 percent of Americans support letting the "tax cuts passed in 2001 be passed for everyone," rather than letting them expire for the wealthy (53 percent) or expire altogether (14 percent). On the other, large majorities of Americans in two new polls released yesterday offered support for the deal to extend both unemployment benefits and tax cuts for everyone. What gives?

First, keep in mind that many Americans are unfamiliar with the specifics of the competing policy options at the center of this debate. Just how many are unfamiliar is hard to say, but Gallup released Tuesday a new national survey) in which 31 percent of Americans say they are following news about the tax agreement "very closely," 35 percent are following it "somewhat closely," 19 percent "not too closely" and 14 percent "not at all." It is unclear how to translate the size of each category into the level of awareness of policy specifics, so consider two analogous stories.

The Pew Research Center found last month that while three of four Americans (75 percent) knew that the Republicans did best in the just concluded midterm elections, less than half (46 percent) knew that Republicans had won a majority of the House of Representatives and only 38 percent could correctly identify John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House.

The reasonable conclusion of the Pew Research analysts: "The public sees the big picture" but "far fewer know the specifics." The same can be said for the way Americans followed the health-care reform debate. In October 2009, for example, at the height of discussion regarding the proposed public option, a majority of Americans (56 percent) surveyed by the Pew Research Center knew that the public option dealt with health care rather than unemployment, banking reform or energy and environment. But that means that nearly half (44 percent) did not even know that the public option dealt with health care. A few weeks later, a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll found only 26 percent of Americans willing to say they could "confidently explain what exactly the public option is to someone who didn't know."

What all of this means is that when pollsters ask questions about public policy, the answers provided are frequently a reaction to the language of each question rather than an expression of a pre-existing opinion about specific policy options.

That tendency leads to a second lesson: The apparent contradictions in polling are more troubling if we assume that all Americans are fully informed and highly opinionated about every last detail of the public policy debate. When viewed as reactions to differing choices, the contradictions can be informative rather than baffling.

So let's turn back to the tax debate and consider the apparent conflict in two questions asked, respectively, by CBS News and Gallup. I choose these two because they help illustrate two categories of results evident in recent polling on tax policy.

The CBS survey released two weeks ago found only 26 percent support for extending tax cuts for all Americans when posed against two options, extending them only for the wealthy or letting all the tax cuts expire:

Which comes closest to your view about the tax cuts passed in 2001? 1. The tax cuts should be continued for everyone, 2. The tax cuts should only only continue for households earning less than $250,000 a year or 3. The tax cuts should expire for everyone.

26% continue for all

53% continue for those earning less than $250K

14% expire for all

7% unsure

Gallup asked just about extending the tax cuts for everyone and got a very different result:

Would you vote for or against a law that would extend the federal income tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 for all Americans for two years?

66% vote for

29% vote against

5% no opinion

Read literally, these results imply that roughly 40 percent of Americans hold contradictory opinions, simultaneously favoring and opposing the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy. A more charitable interpretation is that some answering the Gallup question were unaware of the third option (extending tax cuts, but not for the wealthy). Others may simply have chosen the least objectionable option offered -- preferring to end tax cuts for the wealthy, but selecting a full extension over no extension.

The more recent polling released over the last two days suggests that a majority of Americans react favorably to the agreement as the pollsters describe it. Here's a quick summary:

  • Gallup asked whether "Congress should or should not vote to pass" the "agreement on taxes reached by President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress on Monday -- 49 percent say pass, 32 percent say not pass, 18 percent are unsure.
  • Pew Research asked Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the "agreement to extend tax and unemployment benefits" reached by "Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans" -- 60 percent approve, 22 percent disapprove and 18 percent are unsure.
  • Washington Post/ABC News first described and asked separately about four elements of the plan and then asked Americans whether they support or oppose the agreement "Obama and the Republican leaders of Congress" reached "to do all four of these things together as a package" -- 69 percent support, 29 percent oppose and 2 percent are unsure.

If we dig a little deeper, we find evidence that most support the deal without enthusiasm. Specifically, the overwhelming majority of those who with an opinion fall into the middle "somewhat" categories on both the Pew and ABC/Post polls. Pew Research finds just 12 percent strongly in favor and 5 percent strongly opposed; ABC/Post finds just 20 percent strongly in favor and 12 percent strongly opposed.

Similarly, the Washington Post analysis analysis finds that nearly everyone finds something to quarrel with in the agreement:

A slender 11 percent of those polled back all four of the deal's primary tax provisions: an across-the-board extension of Bush-era tax cuts, additional jobless benefits, a payroll tax holiday and a $5 million threshold for inheritance taxes. Just 38 percent support even two of the components

"In other words," as Wonkette's Jack Stuef puts it, "it's a compromise, it has bad and good parts, and they only support part of it."

All of this suggests that many are reacting favorably as much to the unusual bipartisan nature of the agreement as to the specifics of the deal itself. multiple Polls conducted since the election show that majorities of Americans want their leaders to put aside partisan differences and compromise to get things done.

Finally, if nothing else, these results give us some important perspective on a question we asked last week about whether President Obama was pursuing a uniquely unpopular course. Whatever the substantive merits of the deal, Obama's decision amounted not so much to choosing an unpopular option as to avoiding a third path -- failing to extend all tax cuts and unemployment benefits in the midst of partisan gridlock -- that risked public-opinion disaster. The one thing that nearly all the polls agree on is that the least popular option was letting all the tax cuts expire.