It's interesting to see how the terminology used for tax laws is different depending on which taxpayers are at issue. The left manages to criticizes President Obama for approving "tax cuts for the rich" while at the same time insisting that the middle class not be socked with a "tax increase." If it's a "tax cut" for the "rich," isn't it also a tax cut for the middle class? And if it's a tax increase on the middle class, wouldn't it also be a tax increase on the "rich"?
There was something of a similar debate back in the mid-1990s over a reduction in the planned growth rate of Medicare spending. Democrats called it a "cut," while Republicans insisted that it was an increase, because spending was still going up.
The extend/expire tax cuts language versus the raise taxes language actually makes a big difference to listeners, even though it means the same thing in terms of tax rates. Ask the question this way — "As you may know, tax cuts that were passed in 2001 will expire on January 1st if the President and Congress do not extend them. If you were in Congress and you had a choice between voting to extend the tax cuts or letting the tax cuts expire, would you vote to extend the tax cuts or let the tax cuts expire?" — and you get 29% in favor of letting the tax cuts expire, and 65% in favor of extension. But ask the question this way — "As you may know, tax cuts that were passed in 2001 will expire on January 1st if the President and Congress do not extend them. If you were in Congress and you had a choice between voting to keep current tax rates or raise taxes on January 1, would you vote to keep current tax rates or to raise taxes?" — and only 14% favor raising taxes, while 83% favor keeping the current tax rates. That data comes from highly informative Crossroads GPS poll.
By contrast, a more ideologically slanted poll done for Bloomberg News asked the question this way: "I'm going to mention some of the ideas for reducing the deficit. For each, please tell me if this is something you favor or oppose....Eliminate tax cuts the wealthiest Americans have received in recent years." That question got 59% in favor of eliminating "tax cuts," by framing the matter in terms of deficit reduction and by using class warfare language about "the wealthiest Americans." A follow up question asked "The U.S. Congress is considering whether to renew most or all of the Bush tax cuts that expire at the end of December. In your view, what action would be best for the U.S. economy?" By injecting the word "Bush" into the poll, the pollster wound up measuring people's attitudes not about taxes but about President Bush. The follow-up question was further loaded by giving, as one answer, "Let all tax cuts expire as scheduled and return rates to previous levels to help cut the deficit." That answer gave a reason within the answer, "to help cut the deficit." An alternative choice, "Extend the tax cuts permanently for all income levels," included no justification, though it might have just as easily been framed as "Extend the tax cuts permanently for all income levels to create certainty about tax policy that will help create private sector job growth."
It's funny that the poll that is more careful about measuring the effects of language on the poll results is the one done for the right-of-center, Karl Rove-associated group, while the one that is for a purportedly neutral news organization is the one that is unbelievably slanted. If you have some time to spare, it's worth clicking through and looking at the PDFs of the Bloomberg poll and the Crossroads GPS poll side by side as case studies of how a poll's findings are subject to how the question is phrased, and how what the poll measures, in some cases, is not the public's view of the underlying issue but the language that frames the issue in the question.