Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

August 12, 2008
By: David Moore

David Moore, author of The Opinion Makers: An Insider Reveals the Truth Behind the Polls, is a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and Managing Editor of the Gallup Poll. He'll be guest blogging here all week.


THE MYTH OF WAR SUPPORT....Numerous excellent comments followed my post yesterday, in which I argued that polls don't give us an accurate picture of public opinion — and that current poll results about oil drilling were just the most recent examples of this inaccuracy. Among many comments worth discussing in more detail is the one that suggested the problem appeared not to be with the polls themselves, but with the reporting of poll results.

I agree that news reports are often to blame for the misrepresentation of public opinion, but I can't let us pollsters off the hook. Media pollsters themselves rarely attempt to measure other than superficial responses, in part because pollsters are integrated into the news process itself. Either the polls are owned and run by the news organizations, or the hired pollsters work hand in glove with the news editors and reporters to produce results deemed useful for news stories.

A prime example of the problem occurred in 2003, just before the United States launched the invasion of Iraq. All the major media polls at the time found widespread support for the war, typically by margins of two-to-one or greater. The questions included on those polls asked some version of "Do you favor or oppose sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?"

In a February 2003 poll, Gallup asked a standard version of the question that all the other pollsters asked, and like the other polls, found a substantial majority in favor of the war — 59 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point margin. Only 3 percent said they did not have an opinion. However, as part of a special experiment which I helped design (as a senior editor of the Gallup Poll), the standard question was followed up with another, which essentially asked if people really cared that their opinions might prevail. And the results here revealed a very different public from the one that has come to dominate conventional wisdom.

To people who said they favored the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did not send troops to Iraq. And to people who opposed the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did send troops. Just over half of the supposed supporters and a fifth of the opponents said they would not be upset if their opinions were ignored.

The net result: Only 29 percent of Americans supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn't come about, while 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. Another 38 percent, who had just expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just opined. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn't care one way or the other.

What this experiment revealed was that instead of a war-hungry public, Americans were evenly divided over whether to go to war — three in ten in favor, three in ten opposed, with a plurality willing to do whatever the political leaders thought best.

These results from the experimental follow-up question reveal the absurdity of much public opinion polling. A democracy is supposed to represent, or at least take into account, the "will" of the people, not the uncaring, unreflective, top-of-mind responses many people give to pollsters.

If people don't care that the views they tell pollsters are ignored by their political leaders, then it hardly makes sense that pollsters should treat such top-of-mind responses as a Holy Grail. Yet, typically pollsters and the media do treat those superficial results as though they represent what Americans are really thinking, with pollsters making no distinction between those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue.

David Moore 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Absolutely excellent post!

Posted by: Name on August 12, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

Mark Twain was right.

Posted by: Tracer Hand on August 12, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

i don't have the time to track the numbers down now, but consistent with what david wrote here, if you drilled down into the polling internals, a number of polls asked questions about whether people supported a war that lasted, for example, more than 6 months, or, even more important, had more than 1,000 US casualties.

and the support numbers were in the low 30s, just as david shows us here from another perspective.

so the bottom line is that there was never broad-based public support for this war, and the current disapproval of the public for this war was, in fact, correctly forecast by pollsters.

now, if david wants to flagellate polling organizations, great, go get 'em, but i personally knew this key data point simply by looking at the available polling data, and therefore any reporter could have done the same.

to the best of my knowledge - and i was looking pretty avidly at the time - this kind of polling internal was never mentioned in news coverage prior to the war.

Posted by: howard on August 12, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

It seems like the problem is not polling but writing about polling. Unfortunately, that is not an easy problem to solve.

Posted by: Jimmy on August 12, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

To claim that those who wouldn't be "upset" if their supported option didn't come to pass "didn't care one way or the other" is ludicrous. For one thing, the two options don't have equivalent contingencies. The pro-war people could've failed to get their war because Saddam gave up the (non-existent) weapons and agreed to go into exile with his sons or something. War supporters had potential futures that involved no war but still had some form of "victory" that they could envision; no such contingencies existed for war opponent.

Posted by: Aaron S. Veenstra on August 12, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

"These results from the experimental follow-up question reveal the absurdity of much public opinion polling. A democracy is supposed to represent, or at least take into account, the "will" of the people, not the uncaring, unreflective, top-of-mind responses many people give to pollsters."

I agree that much, if not all, of public policy polling is absurd. Another absurdity is thinking that this country is a democracy that is supposed to have its foreign policy determined by whatever 50%+1 of the public happens to "think" at any given time. I don't want the political leaders of this country paying any attention to the day-to-day polling that the media insists upon conducting and reporting non-stop because they're too lazy to do anything else.

I willing to bet that at a minimum, 90% of the American people couldn't identify where Republic of Georgia is or why the Russians decided to fight them over the treatment of South Ossetia. Why I should give a shit about any polling that tell me what the American people "think" about this situation and/or what should the US government do about it. And if I feel that way, I certainly do not want the President to base his decisions about what to do about this situation based any such polling.

Posted by: Chicounsel on August 12, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Polls are used not to reflect public opinion, but to manipulate public opinion.

Posted by: James G on August 12, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Glad you addressed the pre-war polling, as I cannot even count the number of times I've heard figures in the media, online, or in real life throw about the canard that "well, a majority of Americans were in favor of the war."

No...no they weren't. At least one poll conducted on the eve of the invasion that I well remember showed that something like 62% of Americans were opposed to going to war absent UN support and a broad coalition effort. Which, of course, is how the Bush administration elected to go to war.

Equally inaccurate as a measure of public "support" are those polls conducted within a week or two after the invasion, showing upwards of 80% "support" for the war effort. Certainly once the die was cast, even those adamantly opposed to going to war were hoping for the best outcome, least loss of life, etc. That doesn't translate into full-throated "support" for having started the war in the first place, though you'd never know it listening to mainstream media.

Posted by: Jennifer on August 12, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Wow-- this is great stuff. Based on these terrific blog posts I just ordered this book for my Public Opinion class for the upcoming semester.

Posted by: Steve on August 12, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

It is only Democrats and the media who care about what the polls say, because they believe they should govern as instruments of popular will. Bush routinely says he doesn't pay attention to polls. This book is rediscovering what Republicans have known and exploited for years: polls don't mean very much and voters aren't rational.

Posted by: alsomike on August 12, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

I think the broader implication has nothing to do with polling and everything to do with leadership. What I take from the example is not necessarily that those who would not be upset if the government disagreed so much as relatively blind faith in Dumbya and Congress to do what is right. This is what really distinguishes the GOP from the Democrats. The GOP is opposed to the majority of Americans on practically every issue, but manages to convince enough people to :trust: them that the GOP until recently controlled Congress and has controlled the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. The Democratic response is to try pandering and when they win elections to cower in abject fear. Pelosi and Obama may be open to drilling? Why not lead on these topics?

Posted by: terry on August 12, 2008 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

Great post, but I think it shows less about polls, which are easily manipulated and more about average person's relationship with the government. The last point, that most Americans trusted or deferred to the elected leadership to the right thing is really key. This is a representative democracy. 95% of the decisions the leaders make are made so we don't need to deal with them. How many billions to the Pentagon? How much to HUD? Let's dive into the nitty gritty of tort reform and health care. For these routine matters, people don't generally care. And, by and large, people don't care about troop deployments either until something bad happens. Bosnia? Sure. Somalia? Why not. (oops! media fiasco.) We trust, or should I say, trusted, our leaders not to be cavilier with US deployment in the same way that we expect them not destroy the national defense, social security, etc.

Enter the Bushies. Lie to get people really interested in the war. People supported it because the leaders told them it was necessary. Now that everyone see that was a crock, the support's not there and neither is the trust. And we wonder why the average person seems to think of politicians as being completely fungible. Lie, evade, cover-up, repeat.

Posted by: do on August 12, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

I think what you have described is consistent with how leaders often make decisions: who is going to get upset by the decision and what power do they have to do anything about it. That applies to a lot in life, not just politics, so I don't think it should be a shocking revelation.

Posted by: Alan on August 12, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

http://obamascrapbook.com/index.htm

Googlebomb it. Make it viral.

Inoculate Obama from the October swiftboats.

The above link really is a humanizing introduction to Obama’s family history.

A weapon against demonizing political opponents.

Posted by: Josh on August 12, 2008 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

...that makes 41 percent who didn't care one way or the other.

To say they "didn't care" seems incorrect--more like 41% didn't feel strongly. (Maybe there were some polls that captured that on a 1-5 scale?)

Posted by: has407 on August 12, 2008 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

Jennifer at 2:36 is correct. Even practically on the eve of war, after all the Bushist lies and propaganda efforts had peaked, according to this poll of 3/16/03 if UN backing was not obtained support for invasion dropped to 54%, and if the Bush administration did not seek a final Security Council vote, support dropped to 47%.

UN backing was not obtained, and the Bush administration did not seek a final Security Council vote. So it is simply not true that a majority of the American people supported this war against Iraq.

BTW, David, since it was a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, were you involved with this one?

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on August 12, 2008 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK

It is important to condition questions of favoring/not favoring Iraq II with the "if handled competently", since for many people that matters most, not the "right to do it" issue.

Posted by: Neil B on August 12, 2008 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Generally a good post, but you're wrong to describe those who would support an outcome opposite from their preference as "didn't care one way or the other".

Many people felt that there were strong arguments in each direction. It's hardly apathy to acknowledge that we all have limited knowledge and judgment, and that there were perfectly valid (even if in one's view mistaken or relying on flawed value judgments) reasons to take the opposite tack from one's own preferences.

It didn't help matters, though, that so often the weakest arguments seemed to be advanced by each side (The Iraqi army is too strong!)(Saddam's about to have nukes!).

Posted by: Shelby on August 12, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

If people don't care that the views they tell pollsters are ignored by their political leaders, then it hardly makes sense that pollsters should treat such top-of-mind responses as a Holy Grail. Yet, typically pollsters and the media do treat those superficial results as though they represent what Americans are really thinking, with pollsters making no distinction between those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue.

That's true, but if you grant that their leadership should take into account the will of the people (rather than a simple judgement by a leader about what course is best), how else are you going to measure it? Polls are obviously not a great source of data, but are they worse than a finger in the wind? I'm not sure about that.

Posted by: TW Andrews on August 12, 2008 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

It is possible some Democrats who voted for the authorization to use force may have been duped into thinking their political careers would end if they voted against war based on poll results showing such a large proportion of Americans in favor of the invasion of Iraq. At least that is what they tell voters now. It is also possible only a few may have been duped, but others used the polls as political cover to defend their support of the invasion as a gift for defense care contractors. They know polls are rigged.

Posted by: Brojo on August 12, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Moore no doubt knows a lot about polling, but his conclusion here is silly. Asking a follow up question about whether someone would be "upset" if their view is not followed hardly shows that they "did not care one way or the other." It is surprising that this is the best analysis that someone as experienced as Mr. Moore can provide to further explain polling of the Iraqi War question.

Aaron is correct above that Mr. Moore analysis is very shoddy on this issue, and Chiccounsel is correct that is is absurd to place weight on poll results regarding momentuous foreign policy decisions on which most of us are not very knowledgable.

Posted by: on August 12, 2008 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

"asking a follow up question about whether someone would be "upset" if their view is not followed hardly shows that they "did not care one way or the other."

If you don't want to admit the logic, you don't have to admit the logic.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink, even though the water is wet and the horse is thirsty.

Posted by: Joey Giraud on August 12, 2008 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

Is the logic sound? It seems like a leap.

Posted by: Brian on August 12, 2008 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone arguing that it makes no sense to conclude "did not care" from not being "upset" - for gallup's sake, what else could it signify? Somebody says, oh yes, I want (for example) abortion to be legal (or outlawed) . . . but if it's not, well, no biggie. - The usual conclusion one would draw is that they don't actually care about this issue in any meaningful sense. If you want to be really specific, they care just enough (about something, at least, possibly self-image or perception by others) to form and express an opinion, but not beyond that.

Posted by: Dan S. on August 13, 2008 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

There are penis enlargement pills in the market, but Finally, a safe, all-natural solution for a stronger, longer penis.
What is the effect of penis enlargement pills based on? How does herbal penis enlargement works?
read more here penis enlargement pills

Posted by: Neemneverne on August 26, 2008 at 5:38 AM | PERMALINK

seriously, I prefer the point rather than maple story power leveling

Posted by: stupid on September 19, 2008 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

seriously, I prefer the point rather than maple story power leveling

Posted by: stupid on September 20, 2008 at 3:56 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly