Poll: Americans want special prosecutor for IRS scandal

May 30, 2013

Across partisan lines, Americans agree that a special prosecutor should investigate charges that the IRS targeted conservative groups, a new Quinnipiac poll finds.

Seventy-six percent of voters want a special prosecutor, including 63 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independent voters. 

"Voters apparently don't like the idea of Attorney General Eric Holder investigating the matter himself, perhaps because they don't exactly think highly of him," pollster Peter Brown said. Voters disapprove of Holder's job performance by a 23 to 39 percent margin.

Of the three scandals that have bedeviled the White House this month, 44 percent of voters think the IRS is the most important, followed by 24 who choose the administration's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and 15 percent the Justice Department seizure of records from the Associated Press. But by a 73 to 22 percent margin, voters say working on the economy is more important than any of the three issues.

Calls for a special prosecutor have come from the right and left. But not everyone agrees that a special prosecutor is a good idea. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote Tuesday that "the probe would immediately move to the shadows" and Congress should take the investigatory lead. Libertarian blogger Doug Mataconis agrees, while adding "a prosecutor with a virtually unlimited mandate and an effectively unlimited budget" is generally problematic.

Appointing special prosecutors tends to be popular, especially in cases where there’s clear malfeasance, such as the 1990 Savings and Loan scandal (79 percent favored a prosecutor in a WSJ/NBC News poll) and Enron (61 percent did). The public was more divided on the Valerie Plame scandal (52 percent supported a special prosecutor, according to Gallup) and wiretapping of U.S. citizens (58 percent did).

One exception to the general support for special prosecutors: in a 1995 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent said a special independent prosecutor should not be appointed to investigate allegations that Newt Gingrich did anything illegal surrounding a book deal.

The Quinnipiac finding is among the highest support for a special prosecutors on record, though the wording of the question differs from previous polls. Strikingly, that number is almost identical to the 77 percent in the latest WashPost/ABC News poll who said the IRS’ singling out of conservative political groups was “inappropriate.”

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Aaron Blake · May 30, 2013