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Do Americans Back Nationalization? Depends How You Ask

This post was written by Sarah Dutton and Jennifer De Pinto.

There has been talk recently about the possibility of nationalizing ailing U.S. banks, especially as the government's ownership stake rises with additional bailout money. Americans overwhelmingly reject government ownership and control of the banks, but that notion received a lukewarm reception even in the midst of the Great Depression.

In a CBS News Poll conducted in early February, Americans said they trusted the federal government (54 percent) more than the financial institutions (27 percent) when it comes to deciding how bailout money should be spent.

But the public stopped short of endorsing a government takeover of the nation's banks -- in fact, most opposed it. In that poll, 76 percent of Americans said the government should not own and control the banks, and just 14 percent thought the government should do that.

Interestingly, back in 1937 when the country was still mired in the Great Depression, a Gallup poll asked the same question and found that while there was more support for government control of the nation's banks than there is now, Americans were divided about it even then.


That question asked about the government "owning and controlling" the banks, without mentioning "nationalization." There is evidence suggesting that including the word "nationalization" in a poll question makes a real difference in how Americans react to the idea.

To investigate, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted February 20-22, approached the subject with an interesting experiment. The poll asked respondents about the federal government's involvement in the nation's banks, but the sample was divided in half, and each half was asked the question differently.

One half 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." The other half sample was asked if they favored or opposed "the federal government temporarily nationalizing major U.S. banks in danger of failing in an attempt to stabilize them."

The first question, which does not refer to nationalizing the banks, garnered 54 percent in favor, and 44 percent opposed. The second version of the question, which includes "nationalizing," found 57 percent opposed, and just 37 percent in favor. Clearly, the use of the word nationalizing made a difference in how people responded to the question.

A Newsweek poll in early March also asked a question that included the word nationalization, but their question asked respondents to choose between temporary nationalization or aid to banks with no government control. The public in this case found nationalization more appealing -- but that could be because the alternative was viewed as worse.

In addition, the Newsweek question defines nationalization of the banks, while the Gallup question does not.

The Newsweek poll question asked: "Temporary nationalization is another way for the federal government to deal with large banks in danger of failing. This is where the government takes over a failing bank, cleans its balance sheets, and then quickly sells it off. In general, which do YOU think is the better way to deal with failing banks: government financial aid WITHOUT any government control of the bank, OR, nationalization, where the government takes temporary control?"

Fifty-six percent chose nationalization and just 29 percent chose government help without control.

Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Jennifer De Pinto is manager of election and survey information. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.
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