Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#57, October 19, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Did it seem odd to you that George W. Bush, with barely two years of governing to his credit, got such widespread approval in opinion polls? Did you have just the teensiest suspicion that people thought they were being asked about former President George Herbert Walker Bush?

If so, you had reason. When a Zogby International poll asked voters their reaction to George W. Bush, these were some of the responses:

Well, at least 9% knew which George Bush they were talking about.

That's one of the problems with political polls -- they rarely start by asking whether respondents know anything about the issue. How seriously can you take any poll of presidential preferences when 37% of respondents in a Pew Center poll couldn't name a Republican candidate without prompting, and 50% could not name Al Gore when asked which Democrats were running for President?

Another problem is the absence of a "don't know" alternative in the framing of poll questions. In an NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School poll experiment, half the respondents were asked if they favored or opposed charter schools. The results were 62% in favor, 29% opposed, with 9% independently saying that they didn't know. But when the other half was given "don't know" as an explicit option, results were 25% in favor, 12% opposed, and 63% don't know.

Polls can also be skewed by forcing respondents to choose between limited alternatives. After the 1993 flood left part of my town under the Mississippi River, a pollster asked me where we should build a flood wall: should we just protect the downtown, or protect farmland upstream as well? I said I was against a flood wall, and thought land along the river should be reserved for wetlands and parks. The pollster said that wasn't an option, and of the ones they offered, which did I support? I said none, which was also not an option. I asked her if they had any intention of presenting an honest range of opinion, and she hung up. This poll was used to prove that the citizens of my town were clamoring for a flood wall.

Have you also wondered how polls released on the same day can have such dramatrically different results? Ask how the questions were phrased. You can skew results by using hot button words which automatically generate approval (freedom, choice, etc.) or suspicion (bureaucrats, government, ban, etc.). As John Leo pointed out, whether you appear to agree or disagree with Giuliani's withdrawing funding from the Bronx Museum because of its deliberately shocking exhibition depends on whether you were asked "Should people be allowed to display in public areas art that might be offensive in content?" (54% said no) or "Should government be allowed to ban art in public museums?" (67% said no).

Poll results are also affected by who you ask, how many you ask, and when you ask. Are they registered voters? Likely voters? Is the sample too small? Is it skewed, as in the 1936 Literary Digest poll of car and telephone owners which predicted a landslide victory for Alf Landon? Was the poll taken too far before the election, like ten independent polls that wrongly predicted last year's senate and governor races?

Furthermore, poll results don't even matter if they are misrepresented, as in a recent Washington Post story headlined "Bradley Pulls Even in New Hampshire" -- the story was actually a report of Gore's narrowing lead, and said Gore led in all the current New Hampshire polls by 4-7 percent.

The worst problem about polling, though, is this: it's what we get instead of information about candidates' policies. We know more about George W. Bush's poll numbers than about his position on health care, more about Gore's declining numbers than about what he's stood for over a long public career. If we complain about this, they essentially say, "let them eat C-SPAN."

What matters to us is what these people want to do as President. Is it asking too much to expect our political reporters to tell us this?

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