Polling the Jobs Plan

Is the program that Barack Obama introduced last week popular? Actually, that’s probably the wrong question to ask. What really matters is what will get passed, and whether it will work.

Nate Silver has an excellent examination of the polling relevant to Obama’s jobs bill , and it’s definitely worth a look (see too Suzy Khimm’s analysis) . Short answer: the details probably poll better than the overall bill, but question wording will be even more important than usual. And that’s interesting, and probably will be somewhat predictive for how things play out in public opinion over the next few weeks. The mistake, in my view, would be to try to unpack all of that in an attempt to figure out what people “really” think about the jobs bill. That’s because what the contradictory and confused polling is really telling us that people don’t really have strong opinions of what particular program would be a good idea. That’s not surprising; most of us aren’t economists. Most of us don’t really have any firm idea of what would work. So, instead, we wind up having a mixed-up set of things that we’ve heard that seem to make sense, combined with the slogans that we’ve heard from opinion leaders we like and trust. That, by the way, is why Greg Sargent’s deficit feedback loop can work; if politicians say that deficits are a problem, supporters of those politicians will tend to say that they agree. But all of these sorts of preferences are only on the surface, which is why question wording makes all the difference.

What’s real, and therefore almost impossible for politicians to manipulate, is the underlying preference for economic growth – and with it, jobs. We know that’s real because the election models based in large part on economic growth work really well.

So leaving aside what Republicans will do – that’s a whole different set of incentives — what politicians who are inclined to support the president but are unsure of the political risks involved should think about isn’t how the bill polls. They should think about how they believe the president’s program will actually affect the economy. This is very much a case where if the policy works, the politics will follow.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.