Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume used a misleading poll on Social Security conducted by a pro-Republican public relations firm to claim falsely that "nearly 60 percent of seniors who know the facts support personal accounts" and accuse Democrats of waging a "disinformation campaign." In fact, far from presenting "the facts" to respondents, the poll Hume cited left out key information about President Bush's likely plan for Social Security, and Hume failed to note the poll itself was sponsored by two pro-privatization advocacy groups.
From the "Political Grapevine" segment of the March 16 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:
HUME: Meanwhile, another poll shows that nearly 60 percent of seniors who know the facts support personal accounts. And what's more, members of AARP, despite that group's opposition, are slightly more likely to approve of personal accounts than non-AARP members.
As Hume reported on the poll, this graphic appeared on the screen:
In fact, the poll Hume cited, conducted by the PR firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates, did not present "the facts" on Social Security to respondents. On the contrary, the relevant question concealed the fact that the plan Bush apparently favors includes substantial benefit cuts for everyone under 55, and further cuts for those who opt for private accounts. From the poll, conducted March 6-8 by Ayres, McHenry & Associates:
17. People 55 and older will get the same benefits they have been promised, at the same time they have been promised. Workers under 55 would have the choice of staying in the current system, or taking a portion of their Social Security payments and creating a personal retirement account that they would control. They would only be allowed to invest the money in their personal retirement account in a conservative mix of bond and stock funds, and they could not take the money out until retirement. They could pass those savings on to their spouse, children, or a charity if they died before retirement. Do you think offering this type of personal retirement account to workers under the age of 55 would be a good idea or a bad idea?
The poll's claim that workers under 55 "would have the choice of staying in the current system" conceals the fact that under Bush's likely plan, everyone under 55 will receive a benefit cut, regardless of whether they opt to establish a private account. Because private accounts do nothing to address Social Security's long-term solvency, as even the White House has admitted, White House aides and congressional Republicans have said in anonymous statements (see here and here) that Bush will propose reducing benefits for all retirees, regardless of whether they opt for private accounts. "Model 2" from Bush's 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security, which is widely thought (see here, here, here, and here) to represent the plan Bush favors, reduces benefits by indexing the growth of initial benefit levels to prices rather than wages, as current law mandates. A leaked memo about Bush's plans for Social Security from Peter H. Wehner, head of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, also endorsed this concept.
Moreover, the White House has explicitly admitted that under Bush's plan, those who opt to divert payroll taxes into private accounts would lose a portion of their guaranteed benefits.
When respondents learn that opting for a private account will result in cuts in guaranteed benefits, support for the idea declines dramatically. A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies/AARP poll, conducted January 15-23, found that 63 percent of respondents opposed private accounts if it meant a "lower guaranteed Social Security benefit in retirement." The AARP also noted this flaw in its March 17 response to the Ayres poll.
The explanation of Ayres's methodology contended that "so many other surveys ... state that 'guaranteed benefits will be lower' with personal retirement accounts, without also indicating that actual benefits will probably be higher based on historical bond and stock returns." But in attempting to correct that perceived flaw, the Ayres poll posed a deceptive question of its own, which produced artificially high support for private accounts.
Georgia-based public relations firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates conducted the poll Hume cited on behalf of two pro-privatization groups, Generations Together and the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security (CoMPASS). Generations Together, described in a March 2 article in the San Francisco Chronicle as "a new umbrella organization of business groups and conservative seniors' organizations," advocates "the introduction of voluntary personal retirement accounts," according to its website. On February 1, the Associated Press reported that CoMPASS is "[w]orking for the RNC [Republican National Committee] ... from outside Washington to pressure lawmakers" on Social Security.
Ayres has previously conducted polling on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which used it in advocacy advertisements to claim that 67 percent of doctors "fear that weakening patent protections for new drugs will lead to less research on cures for rare diseases." In 2001, the American Association of Health Plans (AAHP) used polling by Ayres in its pro-malpractice reform advertisements to claim that "three out of four doctors" think lawsuits are a bad way to resolve healthcare disputes. The ad encouraged people to ask their representatives in Congress "if they're protecting you or the trial lawyers."
Later on Special Report, Hume presented the poll to the "Fox News All-Star Panel" and used it to suggest that Bush is "up against a disinformation campaign" by "Democrats and partisans":
HUME: We're also seeing polls that indicate that nothing like a majority of the public understand that ... the personal retirement accounts are not mandatory, and that you have choice. So does it appear that the president is up against a disinformation campaign? ... Is it the job of the media to straighten up these misconceptions, if they're being advanced by Democrats or partisans?