Big Three Bailout: A Data Drive-Through

Dec 3, 2008 11:39am

This week’s attention on government loans for the Big Three automakers makes a drive-through of available data worthwhile. Buckle up: There are some road hazards.

The data point I like best – don’t be surprised – is from our own ABC News poll Nov. 23, in which we found 57 percent of Americans opposed to $25 billion in loans for the Big Three, just 35 percent in favor. Strong opponents outnumbered strong supporters by 2-1.

We got there with a pro/con question that summarized arguments for and against the loan. It’s an approach I favor for issues that are new, complex, carry innate positive attribute bias, or in which the arguments and/or counterarguments may not be apparent. Here’s what we asked:

ABC News, 11/23: The big three automakers in the United States have asked for a 25 billion dollar loan 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? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

The only other independent data we've seen on this is from a Gallup poll Nov. 16, with a different, more evenly divided, result – 47 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. This question was simpler, did not name the loan amount, used the positive word “assistance” and, to my ear, gave a reason for the loan but not a reason against. Take a look:

Gallup, 11/16: 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?

Lastly there was a General Motors-sponsored poll from Hart Research, Nov. 12, that found 55 percent support for the loan. If the news release didn’t say that G.M. had nothing to do with the questionnaire I’d be inclined to suggest it’s at least as good at manufacturing data as it is at manufacturing vehicles.

This effort primed respondents by asking an unbalanced question on the importance of the auto industry to the U.S. economy (three chances to call it important, two otherwise) and then asking how much harm would be done (to jobs, the economy, America's world standing and consumer choice) if the auto industry went broke, before getting to the loan question – which itself, in my reading, had a little positive attribute bias thrown in.

Hart Research for G.M., 11/12 (After questions on importance of auto industry and potential harm of its failure): Do you believe the government should or should not provide loans to America's automakers so they have the money to manufacture vehicles?

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, noting how poll results on providing government funds for failing financial firms depended quite a bit on the question wording – “bail out” or “investing,” for instance. These results aren’t contradictory; they’re simply different, and in their differences they give us a useful understanding of the language that may be used on both sides to try to steer public opinion in their favor.

Afternoon update:

CNN today released another poll result on this, very similar to our own, with Americans opposing Big Three assistance by 61-36 percent. (Ours, per above, was 57-35.)

I should note that if you put three pollsters in a room you'll get four ways to ask a question; quibbling about wording is half the job. Here's CNN's:

CNN, 12/2: 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?

My observations: On one hand, possibly imparting a negative attribute, this doesn't specify that we're talking about a loan; on the other, possibly imparting positives to the proposal, it lowballs the amount and doesn't make clear that bankruptcy can be non-fatal. (And then there's the question of both CNN and Gallup's "favor"/oppose, vs. my own strong preference, "support"/oppose – fodder for a full-day colloquium in and of itself.) These may make no difference, or may cancel each other out. The result does underscore the reassuring fact that different ways of getting at an issue, if balanced, more often than not yield similar answers.

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