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Pollsters Shaping Social Security Debate

With Congress awaiting the details of President Bush’s plan to reform Social Security, both parties are polling furiously in an attempt to decipher where the public stands on the issue and how best to draw the rhetorical battle lines to favor their camp.

With Democrats and Republicans acknowledging that the issue’s fate on Capitol Hill remains unpredictable, early positioning in the run-up to President Bush’s Feb. 2 State of the Union speech is viewed as crucial.

“Polling will play a big role on both sides about how they talk about Social Security and how they tactically decide to take it on,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

If the meetings in Congress this week are any indication, the Social Security fight could go a long way toward making a handful of pollsters very wealthy.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), House Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) met with Republican pollster Dave Sackett, a partner in the Tarrance Group, late Tuesday to review his new data on Social Security.

That same information will be presented to the full Republican Conference at the bicameral GOP retreat later this week in West Virginia.

Sackett’s poll is the first installment of the “Social Security Research Project” commissioned by the NRCC. Sackett is also expected to conduct focus groups and perhaps a second survey to test voter opinions on the issue, according to knowledgeable sources.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) along with Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Finance ranking member Max Baucus (Mont.) met with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin to review their own Social Security survey research.

Baucus has been designated by Reid as the lead negotiator on the issue.

Last week Garin met with senior House Democratic staff to brief them on his findings.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and a number of other Members had Garin’s results presented to them by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) on Tuesday.

A Jan. 25 polling memo, written by Garin and Guy Molyneaux, calls Social Security a “genuine opportunity for Democrats and a genuine danger for congressional Republicans who must stand for re-election in 2006.”

According to the Garin survey conducted earlier this month, 39 percent of those tested favored Bush’s Social Security proposal based on “what they have heard so far”; 46 percent were opposed to the plan based on the same information.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said that the meeting with Garin is simply part of the Minority Leader’s preparation for the unveiling of White House-backed legislation.

“As the White House gears up for what appears to be an all-out push for this proposal Senator Reid is gathering the advice of a number of experts for the debate to come,” said Manley.

Senate Republicans have commissioned polling by David Winston (a Roll Call contributing writer) and are also consulting intermittently with language guru Frank Luntz.

The glut of polling reveals the tremendous energy, focus and concern being generated in the halls of Congress by what has become the flagship domestic issue of President Bush’s second term.

With the ultimate outcome so murky, both sides are trying to tread carefully in talking about Social Security.

“The language is very important for framing the terms of the debate,” said Democratic pollster Greenberg, who has done a number of surveys on Social Security over the past few years. She cited the White House’s recent emphasis on “personal” investment accounts as opposed to “private” accounts as evidence of the power of language.

Not all Republicans have been willing to treat the issue as gingerly — most notably Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.).

One informed Republican source said that Thomas did not have the benefit of the party’s polling when he made comments recently advocating adding reform of the tax code to the administration’s planned push on Social Security and mentioning a pair of highly controversial proposals — a national sales tax and value-added tax — could be part of the funding discussion.

“At best [Thomas’ remarks] can be seen as him floating trial balloons to see what gets shot down,” the source said.

Taken in that context, Thomas’ comments could be viewed as one of many subtle but persistent attempts by both sides to shape the landscape on which the legislative battle will be fought.

Those efforts are at least as important to the ultimate fate of the reform package as the more public fight expected in Congress, according to Republican media consultant John Brabender, a close confidante of Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Brabender said surveys he has seen show that at this point in the process it is more important for Republicans to tell voters what they won’t do than to explain what they will.

Democrats are trying to “create suspicion and doubt” among the general public about Republicans’ plans when it comes to Social Security, a campaign that, if successful, could doom the reform effort before it even reaches Congress, according to Brabender.

“Any Republican clients I am talking to I tell them, ‘You have got to alleviate the fear’” that Republican will raise the age to qualify for benefits or raise taxes to cover the costs of the new program, he added.

The Garin memo disputes the idea pushed by many Republicans that the more voters learn about the plan, the more they like it.

In his polling, Garin provided respondents with four “headlines” about the Bush administration proposals: workers 55 and under could put up to one-third of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts; the guaranteed benefit for retirees would be reduced anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent; anyone over 55 will experience no change in their benefits; and the funding shortfall in Social Security will be erased by the program but the government will need to borrow $2 trillion to cover transition costs.

When given that information 40 percent of those polled approved of the Bush plan, a gain of 1 point from those initially in favor of the proposal. Fifty-four percent disapproved after hearing the headlines, an increase of 8 points.

“As was the case with health care reform in 1993, the devil will be in the details,” wrote Garin and Molyneaux.

“The challenge for Republicans is harder because what they want to do is out of touch” with where most Americans are on the issue, said Greenberg. “The intensity of opinion is not there.”

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