The ‘Hate the forest, love the trees’ syndrome

Several recent polls illustrate one of the paradoxes of polling, Humphrey Taylor writes at Huffington Post’s Pollster blog. On issue after issue, large proportions of Americans say they are opposed to something taken as a whole, but majorities or pluralities are in favor of the component parts.

Take government spending: Several polls say large majorities want federal spending cut. But in one poll that offered 20 specific types of spending to cut, the public favored reducing only a few, including foreign aid, the space program and welfare. And those account for only a small fraction of the budget.

Similarly, when asked generally if they approved of legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, 33 percent said yes and 46 percent said no. But when asked about the seven best-known measures, those who said they were familiar with the legislation approved of five, including extension of the Bush tax cuts and repeal of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell.

Then there’s health care reform. Numerous polls show strong support for repeal of the bill, but key provision of the measure draw support from majorities or pluralities when taken individually. The only provision that a majority want to repeal is the individual mandate.

“It seems to be a case of ‘hate the forest but love the trees,'” Taylor says.