Pitfalls of Opinion Polling on Tax Policy

October 19, 2006

Survey questions about tax policy can be tricky. It’s easy to generate misleading poll results about the public’s views on taxes and spending if survey questions don’t carefully connect the dots between demands for spending programs, and the taxes that necessarily fund them.

A classic example comes from this morning’s Washington Post. Under the headline, “Poll Shows Support for Tax Increase,” the Post reports the following:

A large majority of Northern Virginia residents want the state to spend more money to fix the region’s roads and rails, and more than three-quarters say they wanted the opportunity to raise local taxes to do it, a new Washington Post poll shows…

Seventy-six percent of likely Northern Virginia voters said they want the opportunity to vote again on a local tax increase. And about half of those voters said they would support a general tax increase or higher fees and tolls to pay for new roads, bridges and mass transit.

Here’s the actual survey question they refer to in the Washington Post News Poll:

27. Would you favor or oppose a transportation plan that would allow voters to approve local tax increases to fund road projects in their area?

Favor Oppose No opin. 10/12/06 LV 69 30 1 10/26/05 LV 79 20 2

While it’s unclear where the 76 percent figure from the story comes from—a search of the full text of the survey results at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postpoll_101506.htm turns up no response of “76 percent” for any question related to tax policy—there’s an additional problem with the way the above result is reported.

First, the question addresses only the narrow issue of whether voters would like the opportunity to approve—or, presumably, disapprove—local tax policies. It does not actually ask whether voters prefer increased or decreased taxes, as the headline claims.

But more importantly, the question does not actually present a valid political choice to voters. That is, it does not connect respondents’ tax liabilities with their demands for public services. In the long run, taxes are inextricably linked to spending demands. So it’s important that survey questions about fiscal policy present realistic questions that reflect those trade-offs.

Simply asking whether voters prefer additional spending, without linking it to the necessarily higher tax burdens that will result, is no more valid than a survey question asking whether hungry restaurant diners prefer more steak, without presenting them with information about the price of the meal.

A more methodologically sound approach to survey questions about fiscal policy is to present options for programs along with their actual tax price-tag.

Here’s one example of such a question, from our 2006 Annual Survey of U.S. Attitudes on Taxes and Wealth:

Q727. This year the U.S. budget deficit will be $340 billion, or $2,470 per individual tax return. Some people say it is important to balance the budget. Thinking about your own situation, would you be willing to pay an additional $2,470 in federal taxes to eliminate the deficit and balance the budget?

Yes, I would be willing to pay the additional tax — 9% No, I would not be willing to pay the additional tax — 79% Not sure — 12%

Click here to see the full topline results from our 2006 survey. For our previous tax policy surveys, see our “Public Opinion Surveys on Taxes” section here.


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