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Nyhan: Overstating public incoherence on the deficit


Today's guest pollster contribution comes from Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. This entry is cross-posted at his blog, Brendan-Nyhan.com.

Matthew Yglesias calls the public "ill-informed and hypocritical" based on a New York Times poll that found "Most Americans continue to want the federal government to focus on reducing the budget deficit rather than spending money to stimulate the national economy... [y]et at the same time, most oppose some proposed solution for decreasing it."

The problem, however, is that the available evidence doesn't support Yglesias's conclusion (which is encouraged by the way the poll is framed in the Times). When you look at the raw poll results (PDF), you'll see that the public prefers reducing the deficit to stimulating the economy 58%-35%, but 53% oppose cuts in public services and 56% oppose higher taxes. Those numbers may seem "ill-informed and hypocritical," but the problem is that we're dealing with aggregate data (this is what is known as an ecological inference problem). We can't draw any strong conclusions about the proportion of individual members of the public who have incoherent preferences about deficit reduction without access to the raw data. Ideally, we would break out the members of the public who advocate deficit reduction over stimulus and see how many of them oppose both higher taxes and reduced services. That's the quantity of interest, but it's unfortunately not available to us at this point.

Update 7/30 12:12 PM: Yglesias has generously updated his post to note that you "can't infer very much about individual preferences from this aggregate data."

 

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