15 Apr 2010

Polling the Tea Baggers

The New York Times has a poll out this week discussing feelings about the economy, etc. I read through most of it, and Question 22 jumped out at me:
If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?
50% of people responded smaller, pretty close to the average for the past 20 years. But the pollster then asked a follow up question to those requesting a smaller government:
Suppose a smaller government required cuts in spending on domestic programs such as Social Security, Medicare, education, or defense — then would you favor a smaller government, or not?
58% favor it then, implying only about 30% of people really want a smaller government when faced with the realistic tradeoff of reduced government service. Without probing the respondent and asking questions from different angles, as the Contingent Valuation folks try to do, the responses are close to worthless.

Bottom Line: Polling data are typically garbage.


  1. I'm not sure that's a fair interpretation. A good chunk of the "size" of the government is regulation -- interference but not much spending. For example, somebody might like the government to stay out of decision such as, just to pick one totally at random, how many gallons of water his toilet tank holds...

    That being said, I tend to agree with your basic point. Much of politics is about posturing and signaling. We choose our side based on how we want to be perceived rather than any rational calculation.

  2. Good point. I looked up the toilet std, and it came from a 1992 energy policy act, which mandated states to enact plans, and the DOE had toiled guidelines which met the intent of the law. How then are they able to mandate regs like this? I am betting that they attach money to state compliance somehow.

  3. Kieth Burgess-Jackson
    points out another reason to think the survey responses are rational. Saying that you don't want existing programs, such as Social Security, cut is not the same as saying you want new ones, such as a large federal health care entitlement, added. This means that the Tea Partiers are that most prized of all the rare birds: moderates.


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