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The Mysteries Of Social Security Polling.

One liberal talking point on Social Security is that "the more people know about Social Security reform, the more they oppose it." This is actually code for "the more the pollsters push people against Social Security reform, the more the people will oppose it."

Imagine knowing almost nothing about Social Security reform but someone conducting a public opinion poll on the matter asks you about it after running down the typical list of (mostly misleading) criticisms of reform.

The most dangerous omission from most Social Security polling questions today is the fact that guaranteed benefits do not exist. Without reform, those so-called guaranteed benefits are guaranteed to see a cut of between 1/4 and 1/3, guaranteed.

Most polling questions offer a dichotomous choice between "guaranteed benefits" (if we do nothing) and "less guaranteed money" (under reform). If pollsters quit telling people that if we do nothing these "guaranteed benefits" would remain unchanged, and instead started informing people on the facts, it is clear the public might react differently.

Another problem with most Social Security polling today is the idea that reform is somehow going to cost all of this money to accomplish. Pollsters ask questions such as this recent one from Time magazine:

Under the Bush plan, the federal government would have to borrow between one trillion and two trillion dollars or more over the next 10 years or so to provide Social Security to retirees in order to make up for the money going into the personal investment accounts. The money would be paid back later, over time. Would you now favor or oppose allowing some Social Security money to be invested in personal accounts and reducing benefits if the government had to borrow up to two trillion dollars in the next 10 years to pay for the new plan?

When asked the above question, only about a quarter of respondents support reform. If pollsters would inform people of this information (that the "transition costs" are really not new costs at all, just a recognition of existing costs, that these costs would be like paying off the mortgage earlier, that doing it this way would actually save trillions over the long-term, and that the benefits would vastly outweigh the negatives of doing nothing), support for short-term borrowing to cover the transition from a demographic pyramid scheme (pay-as-you-go) to a self-sustaining and perpetually-solvent funding system would rise dramatically.

David Hill, writing in The Hill newspaper (via Social Security Choice) explains how the polls will shift:

Today, voters know so little about the details of Social Security and its reform that they will indeed respond to potential reforms in a superficial, partisan manner. Democrats who think Bush is an illegitimate president and opposed his Iraq war will reflexively oppose anything else Bush is behind, including changes in Social Security....

Today’s cursory polling on Social Security underestimates the shift that’s coming toward support for personal accounts.

As voters know more, there’s going to be a lot of surprising movement in the polls.

Hill also describes a more appropriate way to measure opinions and attitudes on Social Security than the current methods being used in the elite media polls:

At the beginning of each interview, I’d ask respondents where they stand on personal accounts. Then I would tell them that there is going to be a great debate on personal accounts during the course of this year. I’d say that I want them to hear arguments that supporters and opponents will make about personal accounts. Then I would read equal numbers of pro and con statements, asking how convincing each statement seems to be.

In a period of 15 minutes, I’d take voters through most arguments they are likely to hear in the next year. It’s akin to attending a fairly run town-hall meeting. Then I would come back and ask finally: Sometimes during a survey like this voters change their minds, so I’d like to ask you again, do you favor or oppose allowing personal accounts for Social Security?

Wizbang blog explains polling, noting:

...there is an inverse correlation between the complexity of an issue and how well it polls in America.

There is probably no better example than the "Contract With America" era.

The Contract consisted of 10 things the Republicans promised to do if they were given control of Congress. This 10 ideas were wildly popular with the public. They were things like making Congress obey the laws it passed for the rest of us and other common sense ideas. (I listed all 10 in the extended area)

But in the age before the blogosphere could slap the media for poor reporting, the media muddied the waters after the Republicans were given control of Congress. They targeted "The Contract" as a big Republican plan to take over the world while simultaneously not reporting (or misreporting) what was in it. As a result a weird paradox grew in the polling numbers.

"The Contract" had horrible polling numbers. About 25% of the people in the country supported it. BUT if people were polled on each point in the contract, lowest polling item on the list polled in the 80% range. The points of the contract each enjoyed wide support. But the bundle did not.

When members of the administration talk about a long-term effort to educate the public on Social Security reform, they mean it. Because the issue of Social Security is so complex, the necessary level of support for reform requires laying the groundwork, piece by piece, bit by bit, as well as the big-picture. Laying the groundwork also includes the destruction of the myths that cause support for Social Security reform to drop.

The most important of these:

Older Americans must be assured that they will not see any change in their benefits.

So, how is the long-term march to reform going thus far?

Well, here are some encouraging polling figures:

From an RNC strategy memo:


More from the memo:

The latest Gallup poll shows that Americans think Social Security is now the most important domestic issue. At 12%, Social Security has increased by 8% since January and is a greater concern than the economy (10%), health care (9%), or terrorism (9%).


This week's Battleground 2006 poll found Social Security (17%) as the "number one problem for the President and Congress to deal with." Also a recent Harris poll found 37% of Americans think Social Security is the most important issue for the government to address, an increase of 33% from last October when just 4% thought it was the most important issue.


A recent Gallup survey found that 58% of Americans believe that Social Security Legislation should "include a provision that would allow people who retire in future decades to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market and bonds."


According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, fifty-six percent (56%) of Americans support allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market, while 41% oppose such an idea. The number of Americans who support PRAs has increased by a net of 6% since last December, when 53% supported the plan and 44% opposed it. This is the highest level of support for PRAs since the Post first asked the question in 2000.


According to a recent Pew poll, among those eligible for Personal Retirement Accounts, 56% believe investment would bring higher benefits; just 12% predict lower benefits and 55% would invest if given choice. Once PRAs are explained, a majority of Americans support them. According to the Democracy Corps poll, 40% of Americans support PRAs before they are explained, while 51% oppose them. However, after a plan for voluntary personal retirement accounts is explained, support rises to 54%, while 45% remain opposed.


Americans are realizing that Democrats are opposing Social Security modernization because they lack their own plans: The Democracy Corps poll also showed that 50% of Americans believe that Democrats are opposing President Bush's plans to strengthen Social Security just to block his agenda, while only 42% believe that they are opposing President Bush's plan because they have a better way to strengthen Social Security.

The RNC memo also notes that Bush has an advantage over Democrats in terms of actually trying to find a solution. If people believe there is a problem (which there is), and Bush is the one trying to do something about it, even if reform fails in the short-term, the public will blame the Democrats:


But isn't that a dubious source, the RNC?

Well, it can't be any worse than Ruy Teixeira's Emerging Democratic Majority analysis, which says that reform is dead in the water, people don't want it, the country doesn't need it, and so on.

Ouch on that name, by the way, "Emerging Democratic Majority": just how long will it take this majority to emerge? Teixeira has been predicting Democrats to take power for some time now. He's been wrong every election cycle, and he is wrong on Social Security as well.

Take this bit of data from Rasmussen (via Social Security Choice):

Surveys conducted by Rasmussen Reports in 2005 show that between 36% and 48% of senior citizens believe their own retirement benefits will be cut by President Bush’s approach to Social Security. This concern exists despite the fact that the President and other advocates of reform have stated that they will guarantee all promised benefits to those 55 and older. This misconception is widely recognized by activists and journalists, although not many have focused on its impact.

This past weekend, a Rasmussen Reports survey found a second major misconception that is dragging down support for reform — less than half (47%) of all Americans recognize that the President’s plan would give workers a choice between the current program and personal retirement accounts.

Twenty-five percent (25%) of Americans mistakenly believe that the President’s plan would require young workers to leave the current Social Security program and set up personal retirement accounts. Another 28% are not sure on this point. In fact, no reform plan requires younger workers to leave the current Social Security program. The President’s approach and others would offer workers a choice.

The impact of these misconceptions is enormous. When we initially ask survey respondents about the President’s plan for personal retirement accounts, just 38% favor the plan and 46% are opposed. Those results have been mirrored by many other pubic opinion polls.

When we ask about a plan for personal accounts that would give workers a choice and fully protect those over 55, the numbers shift dramatically—51% in favor and just 27% opposed. That represents a net change of 32 percentage points (from minus 8 to plus 24).

Or take this, from The Washington Times:

Three-fifths of people 55 and older think Social Security private accounts for younger workers are a good idea, as long as their own benefits remain untouched.

Bottom line is that this Social Security reform journey will be a lengthy one, requiring education and reassurance of common doubts to pass, but the reform journey is more promising than many would have you believe.

Posted by Will Franklin · 25 March 2005 04:08 PM


Social Security SUCKS! it is the LAMEST GAME IN TOWN.....That's all folks!

Posted by: Zsa zsa at March 25, 2005 04:34 PM

Why would anyone not be for reform? It is such a bad investment...That money could and should be paying us all back much better! i vote reform. REFORM!

Posted by: Zsa zsa at March 25, 2005 06:36 PM

What else can be said but,REFORM, Reform ,reform....

Posted by: wicked witch of west at March 26, 2005 07:14 PM