Saturday, May 20, 2006

Polling by the Numbers

Summary: Some poll results vary widely by how the questions are asked, some are good indications of what the people of America think, and others are nothing more than a measurement of how well the media has been able to conceal its bias. Here's a breakdown of good and bad Iraq polling questions, and why it matters.

I came across an interesting web site today, called It is a compendium of various results from the various polling organizations across the United States. I found some interesting results, particularly on its catalog of polls taken about Iraq, that give us an idea that polling is not often what it seems. Sometimes in evaluating polling results, we need to evaluate the method behind the numbers, or, as the wizard in the Wizard of Oz did not want Dorothy to do, we DO need to "pay [] attention to the man behind the curtain." The following are some of my observations.

The poll results that have the greatest downward trend deal with those subjects most often harped on by the media. When you think of common national polling questions, which question comes to mind first? If you said something like, "What do you think of President Bush's performance with regard to the war in Iraq?", go to the head of the class. It's not hard to guess that a variation of this question is the mosst common national polling question over the past 3 years. This, coupled with a plethora of leading front-page headlines and lead news stories that ask such questions as "Is the Bush Administration Failing in Iraq?" cause one to be very unsurprised that approval responses to questions of this sort plummeted from about 70% in March 2003 to about 30 percent now. Also of note is that these polls seldom delve into the details behind why someone disapproves of the Bush Administration's prosecution of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Referring to current events in Iraq as a 'War'. In all of the polls compiled by about Iraq, the word "free" does not appear in any of the questions. Perhaps in an effort to be consistent, but as a result being consistently negative, what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq is consistenly called 'The War in Iraq' rather than Operation Iraqi Freedom. To be consistent, there would need to be monthly polls about inner-city Detroit, D. C., and Philadelphia that always ask the question about 'The War on the Streets,' such as "Do you feel more confident or less confident that the War on the Streets will come to a successful conclusion?" It would be interesting to see in a poll how many people thought Iraq was actually a war versus an attempt to help a country build upon freedoms recently established.

The nature of the question matters. Depending on how the question is asked, polls yield a dramtically different response on the same question. For example, when asked "Some people are comparing Iraq to the war in Vietnam. Do you think Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam, or do you think the U.S. will accomplish its goals in Iraq?" a much higher percentage of people said that the US will accomplish its goals. Contrarily, when given the options of comparing Operation Iraqi Freedom--er, excuse me--'The Iraq War' to World War II, Korea, or Viet Nam, a much higher percentage of people feel like it compares to Viet Nam. These particular results surprised me the most, considering that a very common statement in the media is "Boy, this war is beginning to look more and more like World War II all the time."

Several results have changed little over time. Over the past year, the question has been asked by the Pew Research Center "Do you think the U.S. should or should not set a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq?" Those in favor have climbed from 49 to 53%, while those opposed, have fallen by about the same amount. Over the past two years, the following question has also yielded little change in results: "In the long run, do you think the war in Iraq has increased the chances of terrorist attacks in the U.S., lessened the chances, or has it made no difference?" (Increased is up from 34 to 37%, while decreased is down by about the same amount.)

Some poll results are not intuitive. The question has only been asked one time, but I find it unusual, considering all the negativity around 'The Iraq War', that 78% of Americans said that "Iraq will be better off in the long run now that Saddam has been removed from office." It sure doesn't seem like many people feel that it is better off right now.

I also wonder why that question hasn't been asked as many times as the Bush question.
Just kidding. I don't really wonder. It's pretty obvious.

You know what else? In all of these media-sponsored polls, I have never seen a question that asks "Do you think the media is or is not fair in its reporting on Operation Iraqi Freedom?"

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