The New York Times today touted two polls that supposedly demonstrate support for the Democratic position on unemployment benefits. But a further examination of the poll questions reveals that their findings were inaccurate; the questions misrepresented the issues at play, and the Republican position on the matter.
"Two national polls published last week suggest that most Americans are on [Democrats'] side of this debate," wrote Dalia Sussman. How she knows that fact is a mystery, given that the GOP argument -- that benefits should be extended and paid for with unused stimulus funds -- was never offered as an option to those polled.
Both polls asked, essentially, if respondents thought it was more important to extend unemployment benefits, or to preserve PayGo rules. Majorities said they thought extending benefits is more important. But under the GOP plan, the two are not mutually exclusive. Nowhere in either poll were respondents asked whether they would favor paying for extended benefits with unused stimulus funds. Neither the Times nor anyone else can accurately claim that voters favor one approach over the other since the GOP position was not an option.
The first poll, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC, asked the following question:
Because of the economic downturn, Congress has extended the period in which people can receive unemployment benefits, and is considering doing so again. Supporters say this will help those who can't find work. Opponents say this adds too much to the federal budget deficit. Do you think Congress should or should not approve another extension of unemployment benefits?
First of all, there are no opponents of an unemployment benefit extension. The only difference between the two parties' positions on the issue is that Democrats want to borrow more money to pay for the extension while Republicans want to use unspent stimulus funds. It's an outright falsehood that the GOP opposes extending unemployment benefits due to concerns about the deficit.
The second poll, conducted by CBS News, asked:
Do you think Congress should extend unemployment benefits for people who are currently out of work, even if it means increasing the budget deficit, or shouldn't they do that?
As in the previous poll, this question misrepresents the potential options before Congress. It offers a yes or no question on the Democratic position, but does not offer the Republican alternative.
You can bet that if the questions had been framed accurately, so as to actually present the Republican position on the issue, the results would have been far different. Both polls should have asked, "Congress is going to extend unemployment benefits. Do you think the government should borrow more money to pay for those benefits, or use unspent stimulus funds?" Does anyone seriously doubt that a majority would prefer the latter?
Unlike the Democrats' position on the issue, the GOP favors both extending benefits and avoiding an increase in the federal budget deficit. And according to this same CBS poll, less than a quarter of Americans believe the stimulus created jobs, while almost half think slashing the deficit should be the federal government's economic priority. The GOP position seeks to extend unemployment benefits while addressing two other pressing national economic concerns -- the failure of the stimulus package and the skyrocketing national debt.
But the Republican option was not presented to respondents by either of these polls, so none of the media outlets at play can accurately present those polls' findings as endorsements of the Democratic alternative.