In further support of Ed’s theory that the third-rail curse is behind us, a CNN/ORC poll released yesterday evening shows that a majority of Americans think Social Security is either “in crisis” or has “major problems.” Perhaps even more importantly, a majority of those polled said they favor at least partial privatization.

Twenty-two percent said the Social Security program is “in crisis,” up from just 17 percent in 2005, while another 49 percent said the program has “major problems.” A full 52 percent said they favor “a proposal … that would allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market or in bonds, while the rest of those taxes would remain in the Social Security system.” Just 46 percent opposed. In October of 2008, those numbers were quite different: Just 36 percent favored the proposal, while 62 percent opposed it.

But few are willing to say Social Security is unconstitutional. Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) say the program passes the constitutionality test, while less than one-fourth (21 percent) says it doesn’t.

Not surprisingly, opinions about Social Security vary significantly with party affiliation and age. The vast majority of Republicans (65 percent) favor partial privatization, while a majority of Democrats (54 percent) oppose it. Similarly, those aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to want to be able to invest at least a part of their Social Security taxes for themselves. Sixty-five percent of that age bracket favored the proposal, compared to just 33 percent of those 65 and older. Indeed, support for the proposal steadily decreased with age, from 65 percent among 18-to-34-year-olds to 55 percent among 35-to-49-year-olds to 48 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds to 33 percent among the 65+ crowd.

This poll, then, suggests Social Security is pretty safe stumping material, the many disapproving headlines Rick Perry has garnered with his strong censure of the program notwithstanding. I’d say that’s progress. But as Ed pointed out, we desperately need the same shift of opinion on Medicare reform if we truly want to solve the debt and deficit problem. Paul Ryan’s proposals for Medicare reform might not have paid off in NY-26 — and they might not pay off in 2012 — but the appetite for Social Security reform today was surely whetted by George W. Bush’s unsuccessful proposals in the early 2000s. In other words, it’s never too soon to start promoting ideas, even if candidates don’t make them the keystones of their platforms.