What do Americans think about the automobile company "bailout" working its way through Congress? Do they support or oppose it? What is "public opinion" on this subject? Over the last week or so, we have been treated to something we see from time to time: just about every well known national pollster fielded a survey during the first week of December that asked about the auto industry bailout. As is often the case, their results sometimes suggest a contradictory reading of what "the majority" of Americans believe.
I have copied all of the results below, but my bottom line is that this variation is not a bad thing and need not confuse us. If anything, it is helpful to have nine or ten pollsters test slightly different versions of the same question, especially when each pollster tests a slightly different presentation of information and context. On a complex issue like the auto company bailout, there is no "perfect" question, and in seeing the way respondents react differently to small variations in wording helps illustrate the softness in public opinion.
Let me start with this result from the ongoing "news index" weekly tracking conducted by the Pew Research Center. Last week (12/5-8, n=1,004 adults), 34% of Americans say they followed "the debate in Congress over a government bailout for the U.S. auto industry" very closely, 38% said they are following it fairly closely, 17% not too closely and 11% not closely at all. While can be hard to interpret vague categories like "fairly" and "not too" closely, these results tell us that while almost Americans are aware that the economy is sputtering and most are at least vaguely aware that the auto industry is seeking help from the government, at least a third (and likely far more) are hazy (at best) on details of what congress is currently debating. Similarly, the ABC News/Washington Post poll finds only 47% who say they "strongly" favor or oppose the bailout.
For those who are following the bailout story closely and have strongly held opinions, the process of answering a survey question about the issue is mostly a matter of retrieving ther opinion from memory and fitting it to the most appropriate answer category. Their answers among these Americans should be reasonably consistent from one survey to another, even with subtle changes the language of the question.
For many others, however, the process of answering a question is more of a reaction. Most will listen to the question and form an opinion on the spot and provide an answer based on the information and "cues" they hear in the question. For these respondents, the the questions language and context is crucial.
I have ranked the results below by survey organization based on the number who express opposition to the bailout (from greatest opposition to smallest, using the first or root question for those that asked follow-ups). Depending on the question, opposition varies from 42% to 61%; support varies 28% to 57%. As is often the case, about a third of Americans appears to float between support and opposition depending on the way pollsters ask the question. They are more likely to oppose the bailout when the question emphasizes the "billions" of dollars involved. They are more likely to support it when the question gives greater emphasis to the imminence of the companies going into bankruptcy or "out of business" in the absence of the bailout. In one case, support is greater when the pollster (NBC/Wall Street Journal) specifies the changes that Congress will require the companies to make in exchange for the money:
CNN/Opinion Research Corporation (12/1-2, n=1,096 adults) -- The major U.S. auto companies have asked the government for a program that would provide them with several billion dollars in assistance. The auto companies say they may go into bankruptcy without that assistance. Based on what you have read or heard, do you favor or oppose this program?
36% favor, 61% oppose, 2% unsure
ABC News/Washington Post (12/3-7, n=1,003 adults) -- The big three automakers in the United States have asked for up to 34 billion dollars in loans from the government. Some people say (it's a bailout those companies don't deserve, and that they'd be better off reorganizing under bankruptcy laws). Other people say (it's necessary to protect auto workers and save a key part of the U.S. economy). On balance, do you support or oppose this plan?
37% support, 54% oppose, 10% don't know
Pew Research Center (12/3-7, n=1,489 adults) -- Do you think it is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to spend billions of dollars In loans to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to keep them in business.
39% right thing, 54% wrong thing, 7% don't know
Rasmussen Reports (12/6-7, n=1,000 adults, mode: automated-IVR) -- Do you favor or oppose providing taxpayer funded loans to help keep General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler in business?
28% favor, 53% oppose, 19% not sure
USA Today/Gallup (12/4-7, n=1009 adults) -- Would you favor or oppose the federal government giving major financial assistance to the big three U.S. automotive companies if they are close to going broke or declaring bankruptcy?
43% favor, 51% oppose
[If oppose] ) Suppose one or more of the three major U.S. automotive companies was certain to fail unless the government provided assistance. In that case, would you favor or oppose the federal government providing assistance to the major U.S. automotive companies?
[Combined response] 52% favor, 42% oppose (9% oppose but favor it one or more are certain to fail)
Marist College (12/9-10, n=1,003 adults) -- From what you have read or heard, do you approve or disapprove of Congress providing federal loans to American automakers?
41% approve, 48% disapprove, 11% don't know
CBS News (12/4-8, n=1,390 adults) -- Do you approve or disapprove of the federal government providing money to the big three U.S. automakers if it would help prevent them from going out of business or declaring bankruptcy?
45% approve, 44% disapprove, 11% don't know
NBC/Wall Street Journal (12/5-8, n=1,009 adults) -- The American automobile manufacturers--General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler--have asked Congress for financial aid and loans to keep the companies from failing and declaring bankruptcy. In exchange, the companies say they will change how they do business by cutting costs and focusing on producing fuel-efficient vehicles. Would you approve or disapprove of the federal government providing financial aid and loans to the U.S. automakers? If you do not know enough about this to have an opinion, please just say so.
46% approve, 42% disapprove, 12% no opinion/don't know
LA Times/Bloomberg (12/6-8, n=1,000 adults) -- As you may know, the three U.S. automakers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- appeared before Congress to say that their companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and to ask for taxpayer-funded loans to help them survive. Do you think the government should or should not rescue the three U.S. automakers?
57% should rescue, 42% do not rescue, 11% don't know
(IF SHOULD RESCUE) In your opinion should the Treasury use a portion of the $700 billion bailout fund Congress created in October to make loans to the carmakers, or should they fund it some other way?
[Combined response] 30% rescue with bailout, 17% rescue some other way, 42% do not resucue
Another characteristic of the results above is that the questions that use the fewest words tend to show narrow disapproval, with roughly 50% expressing opposition. That is an important finding, if for no other reason that fewer words means less opportunity to offer new information. Results based on questions that communicate new facts tend to be more hypothetical. They tend to show us what public opinion could be if one side is more successful than the other communicating their arguments and framing the debate on their terms.
What all of this adds up to is a sense that, as is so often the case, a large group of Americans are in the middle on this issue, demonstrating a willingness to either support or oppose the proposed bailout depending on how the question (or the larger debate) is framed. However, the fact that six of the nine pollsters show net opposition to the bailout -- especially among those with more concise questions -- suggests that the onus is on bailout proponents to make the case to the American public for passage.
That is the value of having nine pollsters ask about the same issue in slightly different ways.
PS: My posts have been sparse the last few days because I have been traveling to and participating in the annual meeting of the "PAPOR," the Pacific chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. I am hoping to have some posts about the conference later tonight.
PPS: A wise AAPOR colleague notes that the question asked by LA Times/Bloomberg -- the one that shows the greatest support -- is the only one to ask whether we should "rescue" the automakers. The others ask if we should provide money, loans or "assistance."