PRINCETON, NJ -- With all eyes on the possibility of increased U.S. government ownership of embattled bank Citibank, and with increased discussion of the need for a government takeover of other major banks, a new USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that Americans' reactions to these prospects vary significantly, depending on how the process is described to them. A majority of Americans (54%) favor a temporary government "takeover" of major U.S. banks, but a much lower minority (37%) favor a temporary "nationalization" of the banks.
The new poll, conducted Feb. 20-22, used a split-sample technique to gauge the impact of different descriptions of the bank takeover situation. A random half of the sample was asked whether they favored or opposed "the federal government temporarily taking over major U.S. banks in danger of failing in an attempt to stabilize them," while the other half was asked whether they favored or opposed "the federal government temporarily nationalizing major U.S. banks in danger of failing in an attempt to stabilize them."
(Separate Gallup questioning shows only 39% favoring "giving aid to U.S. banks and financial companies in danger of failing," when this idea is included in a list of possible steps the government could take to deal with problems in the economy. Fifty-nine percent oppose it. These results are almost identical to those seen regarding possible "nationalizing" of banks.)
Taken together, these results reflect the power of language when it comes to describing government policies: the words "taking over" are significantly more palatable to the average American than "nationalizing."
The data thus suggest that a great deal of fluidity exists in Americans' attitudes toward the ways the federal government could relate to the current banking crisis. A majority of Americans object to "nationalizing" the banks temporarily (and an equally large majority object to "giving aid" to banks in danger of failing). At the same time, it is possible that a majority of Americans could be persuaded to support the government's "taking control" of major U.S. banks, at least temporarily.
It appears the final determination of whether a majority of the public ends up supporting government actions regarding bank ownership will depend on exactly how the whole process plays out.
Not surprisingly, there are significant partisan differences in response to the two ways of asking about the government's taking control of banks.
Democrats are more likely than independents and, in particular, Republicans to favor the government's taking over or nationalizing major U.S. banks, regardless of the question wording; Republicans are the least likely to respond affirmatively to either wording.
It is likely that, on average, the American public has not thought much about the prospect of the government having to take majority ownership of ailing major banks in order to keep them from failing. Thus, when confronted with a survey question asking about just such a possibility, the public appears to be particularly susceptible to the way the idea is described. It seems clear that the word "nationalizing" does not have a great deal of appeal; a majority opposes government involvement when it is described in this way. In contrast, "taking over" appears to have a more benign connotation, and a majority favors the process when it is so described.
These results may indicate the potential range of public opinion if and when this issue becomes a prominent one and a realistic possibility. The range is fairly large, stretching from 37% to 54% approval, suggesting that in many ways, either side could win the battle for public support for this type of policy -- and the side that prevails may do so on the basis of how the issue of government involvement is framed.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.