Three new poll questions on the government’s response to the financial crisis underscore the power of words – not only in how we understand polls, but in how we choose to describe the events of our day. Some analysts might say the results are contradictory; I’d suggest instead that we learn more, not less, by comparing and contrasting them.
The first, from the Pew Research Center, asks about the government "potentially investing" (note: not “spending”) billions “to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure.” Fifty-seven percent like the idea.
Pew: “As you may know, the government is potentially investing billions to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure. Do you think this is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to be doing?”
Result: Right 57 percent, Wrong 30 percent.
The second, from the new LA Times/Bloomberg poll, asks if the government should “bail out private companies with taxpayers' dollars.” Fifty-five percent don't like the idea – almost the exact opposite of the Pew result.
LAT/Bloomberg: “Do you think the government should use taxpayers’ dollars to rescue ailing private financial firms whose collapse could have adverse effects on the economy and market, or is it not the government’s responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ dollars?”
Result: Should do 31 percent, Should not 55 percent.
The last, our own ABC/Post question, asks what people think of the steps the Fed and Treasury have taken to try to deal with the situation. Answer: Even split
ABC/Post: “Do you approve or disapprove of the steps the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have taken to try to deal with the current situation involving the stock market and major financial institutions?"
Result: Approve 44 percent, Disapprove 42 percent.
We know further, from our poll, that just 9 percent “strongly” approve of the government’s actions; 18 percent strongly disapprove, while most by far don’t hold strong views on it. Republicans are a bit more apt to approve, but not broadly – a 49-38 percent division. Democrats split more evenly, with 42 percent approving, 45 percent disapproving. Conservatives divide 48-43 percent; liberals are least enamored of the government's efforts: Thirty-seven percent approve, while 52 percent disapprove.
Approval's highest in our data, 63 percent, among people who think the country's headed in the right direction. But there aren't many of them. And in no group – not even that one – does "strong" approval exceed 17 percent.
All three of these polls shared precisely the same field periods, Friday-Monday, and all use good solid sampling methodologies. Taken together, they cut to the heart of the debate now underway. Is this a federal bailout or an investment of taxpayer dollars? Will it keep institutions and markets secure, or disappear down the drain? While the answers are far from clear, the questions surely matter.
There is also, of course, the question of how this plays out in the presidential election. For more on that, see our latest poll.