Public Agenda Alert -- Thursday, October 17, 2013
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Beyond the Polls: Why Polling on the 

Debt Ceiling is "Mushy"

While we have avoided an unprecedented federal default for the time being, the debt ceiling matter hasn't been resolved. We could be right at the brink again in just a matter of months. Pundits and politicians from both parties lean on recent polls to demonstrate why their perspective is the one that the American public supports. But have a majority of Americans actually made up their minds about the debt ceiling? This is an issue where a single survey finding taken at face value or in isolation can be misleading.


What polling really reveals is that members of the public are still wrestling with the debt ceiling dilemma. Public opinion on this issue is still "mushy" -- a term used by Public Agenda's founder Daniel Yankelovich to describe poll findings that aren't stable because people are still absorbing new information and ideas, grappling with trade-offs and unsure of what they really think. When opinions are still mushy, survey results can fluctuate dramatically. Once people become more realistic and settled in their views, public opinion tends to be remarkably steady over time.


[Read about signs of mushiness here]


For example, few Americans are buying the "default doesn't matter" line of thinking, according to an AP/Gfk poll in October. Six in 10 Americans said it is "extremely" or "very" likely that the U.S. would face a major economic crisis if the debt ceiling isn't raised; just 8 percent said a major economic crisis was "not too likely" or "not at all likely."  Yet just a question later, only 3 in 10 said they strongly or even somewhat supported raising the debt ceiling. A surprising 46 percent said they neither supported nor opposed raising it. That's hardly what you'd expect people to say if so many of them were really envisioning a major economic meltdown.  As the AP itself put it, "people seem conflicted or confused."


[See other examples here]


But there is one area where the public seems much more certain and resolved: they are ready for compromise.  In a CBS poll, a full 77 percent of Americans say that they would prefer having leaders reach an agreement that they themselves didn't fully support versus 17 percent who would prefer "not reaching an agreement on the debt ceiling and having the US go into default on its debts."  


[Read why we don't consider this finding "mushy" here]


In our work, we've seen Americans call for compromise time and time again to make headway on tough issues, especially the tough issues surrounding the debt. For most, the question isn't whether they and their neighbors are willing to compromise and make concessions for the good of the country and the next generation. It's whether their elected leaders in Washington are willing to do the same. 

Interested in getting a deeper perspective on the polls and what Americans are really thinking about the important issues of the day? Public Agenda is joining with the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation to provide monthly insight through our new Beyond the Polls blog. We're launching in November. If you'd like to receive updates when we post something new, change your email settings here or email Megan Donovan and she will add you to the list. 

Experiments in NYC Civic Inclusion

Photo by Daniel Thornton

Forging workable solutions on divisive issues can feel Herculean within our current political climate, particularly when it comes to national politics. Fortunately, on the local level there are great examples of communities working together to make progress on important challenges.


During last week's Independent Sector National Conference, Will Friedman moderated a session on experiments in civic inclusion throughout New York City and learned about rich opportunities for residents to participate in community problem-solving.


For example, fellows from Coro New York's Immigrant Civic Leadership Program work in diverse communities, at City Hall, and with business leaders to lead change across the five boroughs. With support from a strong alumni network, the Coro Fellows gain a deeper understanding of policy and decision making in the city.


In Brooklyn, the Red Hook Initiative was critical as the community responded to the devastation and strife caused by Hurricane Sandy.  RHI brings people together to solve problems and develop common ground, and their efforts help create a neighborhood where all young people can pursue their dreams.


Read more on the Independent Sector blog about the Coro Fellows, the Red Hook Initiative and other innovative groups working to foster inclusion and combat alienation and powerlessness throughout New York City. 

PA in the News

A recent Gallup poll finds the public remains skeptical of online education. In its coverage of the poll, US News & World Report also cites "Not Yet Sold," to provide the perspective of students and employers, also still skeptical. 



As Online Degrees Become More Prevalent, Questions Linger

Enrollment in online Masters of Library Science programs has grown but perceptions of these programs hasn't improved. Library Journal article explores why, with the help of "Not Yet Sold." 


Thanks to the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation for reprinting our commentary on the government shutdown and the need for public dialogue around health care issues on their blog.

What's the meaning of community engagement? What happens when 18,000 people want to get involved? These questions, along with details from our study on the state of public engagement in California, are covered in this article published in Governing Magazine. 

About Us
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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