With the State of the Union address only hours away and Warren Buffett's secretary set to sit in the gallery with the first lady, the White House was no doubt pleased to see POLITICO.com pick up the latest CBS/New York Times poll results and run a story under the headline, "'Buffett Rule' backed by majority, new poll shows." On the CBS website, the poll results, released at noon ET today, sport a similar headline, "Most Americans agree with 'Buffett rule' concept, poll shows."
Big News. So I looked at the poll release from CBS/New York Times. Here's the full question wording for the "Buffett Rule" question:
Federal tax policy now allows capital gains and dividends to be taxed at a lower rate than income from work. Which comes closer to your opinion? You approve of the current policy because you think it encourages investment, which helps the economy and ultimately increases tax revenues. OR, You think capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same as income earned from work because the current policy increases the federal deficit and is unfair to people who don't have money to invest.
Let's set aside the issue of whether increased tax revenues from enactment of the Buffett Rule, that is, taxing capital gains income at same marginal rates as regular income, would actually be used to reduce the deficit, rather than fund additional government spending. The last phrase in the question - "unfair to people who don't have money to invest" - is enough to cast doubt on whether this question gives us an accurate measure of public opinion on the Buffett Rule.
Using the word "unfair" in a survey question cues respondents to favor the response option that is "fair" or will provide redress for the unfairness. Moreover, the CBS/New York Times question wording goes so far as to present the issue of fairness or unfairness of the current capital gains tax rate as a fact: "You think capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same as income earned from work BECAUSE [my emphasis] the current policy...is unfair to people who don't have money to invest."
Asking about the Buffett Rule with this question wording, 52% of all respondents said they favored taxing capital gains the same as work income, 36% favored the current tax policy, 2% volunteered that they wanted the capital gains tax rate higher than the tax rate for work income, and 10% declined to express a preference. There were the expected partisan differences too. 66% of Democrats supported the Buffett Rule, along with 33% of Republicans and 54% of Independents. Margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Respondents were provided with arguments in support of the current capital gains rate, but the balance of the arguments - when one response is framed as a issue of basic fairness - is biased in favor of the Buffett Rule. Proponents of the current capital gains tax rate make their own fairness argument about double taxation of income, for example. That point is difficult to convey well in a survey question, so I wouldn't expect it to show up in a conventional telephone poll. But if you aren't framing the argument in terms of fairness on one side of the issue, you probably shouldn't use that frame for the other side.
I searched for a comparable survey question on the Buffett Rule. Unfortunately, the most recent question that I could find in a search of Gallup, the Roper iPoll database, and PollingReport.com, was a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll from October 2007, before the Financial Crisis and Occupy Wall Street. But it does provide us with some point of comparison:
Now turning to the subject of taxes. As you may know, George W. Bush cut the tax rate on capital gains and dividends to 15 percent, while the top tax rate on earned wages is 38 percent. Do you think the next president should continue to tax investment income at lower rates than salary income, or should the rate for investment income be raised, or should they both be taxed at the same rate?
In 2007, 40% of all respondents to the LA Times/Bloomberg Poll favored the Buffett Rule, 16% supported a higher capital gains rate but not as high as the marginal tax rates, 21% responded that they favored continuing to tax investment income at lower rates than earned income, and 23% provided other answers, predominately "Not Sure." Margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Do a majority of Americans today favor the Buffett Rule? Maybe. But survey questions that read more like they were designed to focus group the president's State of the Union messaging and less like public opinion research won't help us know that.