The Magazine

Polls Apart

Quantifying the conflict between the People and the Political Class.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This may come as a shock to many pollsters and much of the press corps, but public opinion is a little more complicated than randomly calling 1,000 Americans, asking them a dubiously worded question about a complex political issue, and reporting the aggregate results.

Photo of a hand holding money

Fortunately, at least one prominent assayer of public opinion has taken a good look at this state of affairs and is screaming, “Pollster, heal thyself!” Scott Rasmussen looks at America’s dire fiscal predicament through the lens of polling, and does so based on a simple, neglected insight: Polling voters about broad political sentiments is very different from polling them about specific policy solutions. Sure, voters say they’re in favor of more spending on transportation infrastructure; but ask them whether taxpayers should continue, say, subsidizing Amtrak and a large majority is opposed.

In The People’s Money, Rasmussen takes a look at survey data on competing solutions to our fiscal crisis. With respect to Medicare, for example, he kicks the tires on various proposals: shoring up the trust fund, raising the payroll tax, allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines. In the end, Rasmussen finds that, contra Obamacare, voters’ preferred Medicare solutions have certain commonalities: They “embrace the idea of competition: competition among states and competition among insurance companies.” And “the solution is to shift power away from politicians and bureaucrats so that individuals can have more control over their own lives.”

Rasmussen repeats this exercise, addressing the full complement of problems Washington has thrust upon us, from the tax code to defense spending. And he handles the policy details in a way that can be clearly comprehended by citizens newly recruited to the budget wars while still leaving grizzled policy nerds plenty to chew on. While details may vary, Rasmussen finds that, regardless of the issue, voters pretty consistently come down on the side of less spending and less government.

While this approach is novel and informative, it does have its limitations. Obviously, there are reasons why a constitutional republic is preferable to assessing voter sentiment on every law that comes down from Capitol Hill. And Rasmussen generally does a good job of walking the fine line between explaining the bigger polling picture and relying on mobocracy for guidance. Still, at times, the approach feels a little misguided—especially in the chapter on the defense budget. Understanding that voters want fewer American soldiers deployed overseas is worth considering. But if the consequences aren’t made clear, what does such a wish really amount to?

If The People’s Money demonstrates that voters want to rein in spending and expand their personal freedom, why isn’t that happening? Because the public doesn’t always get its way. Indeed, a National Journal survey of political insiders indicates 59 percent believe the people don’t “know enough about the issues facing Washington to form wise opinions about what should be done.” And those insiders have clout.

Rasmussen doesn’t remain neutral in the debate between the people and the political class: He flatly states that “voters are the solution, not the problem,” and declares he’s with the 73 percent of American voters “who trust the American people more than America’s political leaders.” He observes that the reason preferred small-government solutions aren’t being enacted is that they cut the political class out of the lucrative loop they’ve created for themselves. “The willingness of voters to tackle the big issues means that the only thing standing in the way of solving the budget crisis is a Political Class committed to defending the status quo,” writes Rasmussen. Will voters take on the political class? They’re more likely to if they read this book.

Mark Hemingway is online editor of The Weekly Standard.