More Polling Numbers

It’s time for another visit to the world of survey results. As I wrote when I last visited, poll numbers are not my favorite kind of numbers, but they are way better than no numbers at all. Particularly on economic issues, poll numbers are less informative than how people and companies actually spend money,Car_accident_poland_2008 but they are way more useful than mere words put out by people like me. (Note I said "like me" not "me". My analysis is always first-rate.)

If you know the world through words from the media, some of the numbers the pollsters find may be jarring. For example, Gallup recently found that 45% of Americans think there is too much government regulation of business and industry and only 24% think there is too little. That’s a fairly wide margin in favor of less regulation, but what may be truly surprising is that in the past year that plurality has widened. In September 2008, just before it all hit the fan, too much beat too little by 38%-27%. In fact, 45% is the highest number in at least a decade.

You might have thought, and I will admit to having thought this, that the Great Recession had won over enough converts to the unbridled-capitalism-is-bad camp that there was now a broad consensus that we needed more regulation, with only the details of what and where to be worked out. Turns out the opposite is true. The GR seems to have, miraculously, won over more people to the less-government-is-better-government side. Go figure.

Even "reforms" widely reported as popular turn out to have lukewarm support from ordinary Americans. In August CBS News asked if government should limit executive pay in financial firms and found the public evenly split yes/no at 46%-46%. That’s hardly a wave of populist sentiment, something CBS didn’t mention this month in its reporting of the government’s new limits on executive pay at bailed out companies and banks.

I’m of two minds when it comes to the conflict between what the public wants and what the government does. I abhor spineless politicians who base their opinions on poll numbers and focus groups. But once in while the public gets it right. Back in June an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans disapproved of the bailouts of GM and Chrysler 53%-39%.

You might able to explain the disconnect between poll numbers and Congressional action in the auto bailout as a case of a piece of pork doled out in a year that saw entire herds of pigs slaughtered. But the disconnect is there in healthcare too.

Firstly, Americans don’t see healthcare reform as a particular priority. When asked what Obama’s top concern should be, the economy wins easily, with healthcare in third place just behind Iraq and Afghanistan and just ahead of the deficit. By 58%-38% Americans would prefer a gradual approach to a big reform this year. Back in July only 41% of Americans thought we needed a healthcare reform by the end of 2009.

Moreover, what is perceived as a national crisis inside the Beltway is apparently perceived as ho-hum outside. The great majority of Americans are happy with the healthcare status quo. 80% are satisfied or very satisfied with the medical care they currently get and even 61% are satisfied or very satisfied with the cost. Even among the uninsured, presumably the group that would most benefit from reform, less than half would tell their Congressman to vote for it.

Finally, and I really don’t understand why this doesn’t scare the crap out of the Democrats, 39% of Americans believe that the quality of care they get will get worse if reform is enacted against only 19% who think it will get better. On costs it’s 49% worse 22% better. Add that to a general lack of enthusiasm for increasing the role government in general and a feeling that there are more important problems to be tackled just now, and you’ve got the makings of an electoral disaster for the Blue Team.

Speaking of electoral surprises, I want to go on the record predicting that California will legalize marijuana by ballot initiative in November 2010. And I’m not talking medical marijuana. I mean straight up smoke ‘em if you got ‘em legalization.

For just about the entire 1980s and 1990s, Americans were against legalizing pot by around 75%-25%. Then, for reasons I don’t immediately get, about ten years ago the tide started turning. Americans are now against legalization by only 54%-44%. At this rate, according to Gallup, legalization could get a national majority as early as 2013. Moreover, opinion on this is regionally skewed, with people in the west majority in favor now. In California, legalization is ahead 54%-39%. That being the land where politicians need not take a stand on such things and can just wait for the voters to legislate, I predict this will be on the ballot in 2010 and that it will win.

I’d probably vote for it if I lived in California. But don’t get worried that I’m being carried away by populist fervor. I still think most people are annoyingly clueless.

For example, take perceptions of crime. 74% of Americans think crime has increased over the past year. You might chalk that up the GR, except that the number has been between 67% and 71% for four years now. In fact, except for a single survey right after the September 11 attacks, more Americans have told Gallup that they think the crime rate is increasing than decreasing since the early ’90s, a period in which crime was generally falling.

And which crime, you might want to know, do Americans worry about most? By a wide margin, the crime that Americans worry about most is identity theft. 66% said they worry about it frequently or occasionally. Car theft/break-ins and home burglary were essentially tied for second at 47% and 46%.

I’ve already written about how the fear of identity theft is a form of mass hysteria, encouraged by a few businesses seeking to turn a profit on it. Car theft is apparently about three times more common.

Of course, I should mention number four on the Gallup survey: 35% of Americans worry frequently or occasionally about being the victims of terrorism. But only 4% worried about being killed by a coworker. (Sounds like at least 1 in 25 Americans needs a new job.)

For some polls the majority picking the obviously correct answer is reassuring until you consider that it was not unanimous and a meaningful minority apparently has a hole in their head.

90% of Americans think texting while driving should be illegal. Okay, fine. But that means 10% Americans think it should be allowed. And we let these people vote? And drive? The same survey found that 21% of those 18-29 admitted to often or sometimes doing it. Remind me to drive a lot more carefully.

Then again, there are always those who amuse themselves by lying to pollsters. Again according the same survey, 2% of those over 60 claimed to often or sometimes text behind the wheel. Go figure.

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