Polling on inside-the-beltway legislative issues is fraught with challenges because it requires translating Washington-speak into a language voters can understand.
Tax policy is a case in point. With current law on individual rates, dividends, capital gains, the marriage penalty, inheritance taxes, child credits, and others all set to snap back to higher levels at the end of this year, wording questions is a tricky business.
Asking whether tax cuts should “expire” or be “repealed,” for instance, yields very different results than posing a question about “raising taxes.” Asking about raising taxes on “the wealthy” versus individuals earning $200,000 can also produce varying results.
Consider this question Pew asked in a survey of adults last month: “Which comes closer to your view about the tax cuts passed when George W. Bush was president? All of the tax cuts should remain in place. Tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed, while others stay in place. All of the tax cuts should be repealed.”
Pew throws in a few language zingers that probably shift the numbers a bit. First, the “tax cuts” are identified with George W. Bush. Second, they ask about repealing “tax cuts for the wealthy.” Adding the former Republican president’s name in today’s more partisan world and using the word “wealthy” instead of “individuals earning more than $200,000 per year” also probably skews the numbers.
The bigger problem, however, stems from confusion about what “letting tax cuts expire” or “repealing all tax cuts” really mean. While those familiar with the tax debate understand the implication of these options, it’s not clear that Americans generally grasp the notion that the expiration or repeal of tax cuts will lead to tax increases.
A recent Fox News poll asks it this way: Should policymakers allow the tax cuts to expire and let rates rise to their previous level? Only 14 percent chose that option.
Pew’s response category for letting tax cuts expire is, “All of the tax cuts should be repealed.” When worded that way, twice as many (31 percent) choose the repeal option.
Although different samples may account for part of the discrepancy (the Fox poll is of registered voters and the Pew sample is among adults), the question wording that asks about allowing tax cuts to “expire and go back to previous levels” (14 percent) vs. “repeal” (31 percent) clearly produces different results.
The most recent Resurgent Republic poll further underscores voter confusion about the current tax debate. The survey, conducted in 12 battleground states, first asked if voters had heard about a federal tax increase scheduled to occur on January 1, 2011. The results of a national sample might vary, but nearly half (45 percent) of registered voters in these states said they had not heard that the largest tax increase in history was set to occur (54 percent said that they had heard about the tax hike). This raises some questions about the level of knowledge respondents possess when responding to questions like “repealing Bush tax cuts” or letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire.
Resurgent Republic also asked voter preference about raising a host of taxes. In each case a majority opposed.
Raising taxes on married couples 87%
Raising income taxes on all wage earners 73%
Reducing child credit 74%
Raising estate taxes 63%
Raise number paying AMT 50%
Raise capital gains tax 61%
Raise dividend tax 79%
Later this fall, Congress will more vigorously engage the tax debate. Perhaps knowledge will increase as the pending levy increases attract legislative attention and media coverage. In the mean time, voters seem malleable depending on whether questions are framed as letting tax cuts expire, extending tax cuts for the middle class, or whether tax cuts should be repealed. But when it comes to raising taxes – a majority of voters, at least in these battle ground states – appears solidly opposed.