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Birney, Shapiro and Graetz on Taxes and the Manipulation of Public Opinion

We examine the recent battle for federal estate tax repeal in order better to understand the role of public opinion in enacting legislation, particularly regarding low salience issues. In Part I, our analyses of the polling data show how the contours of public opinion were strategically interpreted in the policy debate. When the issue was framed as a matter of fairness, misperceptions of selfinterest and principled beliefs about fairness combined to yield apparently overwhelming support for repeal. However, when it was instead framed as a matter of priority, majorities supported estate tax reform options over repeal. In Part II, we examine how interest groups leveraged their findings about public opinion into messaging, coalition-building, and organized campaigns that dramatically changed the public image of repeal from extreme to mainstream, and moved it off the economic policy ideological spectrum. By selectively revealing, and threatening to influence, latent public opinion, interest groups could help clear and sow apparent minefields of public opinion. In relating our analyses to the literature, we show that the estate tax repeal cannot be explained by common political science theories, such as thermostatic, power elite, or latitudinal models of public opinion. We propose an alternative “running room” model, in which policy outcomes depend on howpoliticians’ perceptions about a potential public opinion backlash are manipulated—even when public opinion itself does not change.

Mayling Birney, Ian Shapiro and Michael J. Graetz (2007), “The Political Uses of Public Opinion. Lessons from the Estate Tax Repeal. Unpublished paper. Available here.

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