Is the public fur it or agin it? The major surveys conflict:

A poll by Rasmussen Reports early in the week found that 44% of Americans opposed the plan and 25% supported it. However, a USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday showed more than 75% favored congressional approval of the bailout. A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted Sept. 19 through Monday showed 55% opposed to government bailouts of private companies.

Does this show that polls are useless? Before we go down that nihilistic route, let’s take a look at the question wordings:

Rasmussen:

“Do you favor or oppose the proposal for the federal government to purchase up to $700 billion in assets from finance companies?”

USA Today/Gallup:

“As you may know, the Bush administration has proposed a plan that would allow the Treasury Department to buy and re-sell up to $700 billion of distressed assets from financial companies. What would you like to see Congress do — [ROTATED: pass a plan similar to what the Bush administration has proposed, take action but pass something different from what the Bush administration has proposed, (or) not take any action on this matter]?”

Note well: The 75%+ support figure is misleading because it aggregates the first two options. Only 22% favored the Bush plan; 56% wanted a plan with changes.

Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times: Should…

“the government should use taxpayers’ dollars to rescue ailing private financial firms whose collapse could have adverse effects on the economy and market, or is it not the government’s responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ dollars?”

The LA Times survey has the best-crafted responses – at least it mentions the main arguments for each side. But the USA Today poll, which gives an intermediate choice, probably tells us more about what the American public is thinking. Namely: They want government to do a lot, just not this.

The bottom line is that if you actually read the questions, instead of just looking at the headline, the major bail-out surveys paint rather similar stories. Journalistic summaries of survey results are about as reliable as journalistic summaries of any scientific results. Blame the summarizers (or perhaps the summarizers’ readers), not the sources.

P.S. Since I think the Median Voter Model explains almost everything about democracy, I have to predict that a slightly modified bail-out will go through in the near future. Hopefully I’m wrong.