Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Some Polls Are More Reliable Than Others

Written from Ashland, Ore.--

There are always a large number of polls in the news, but a Pew poll whose results were published last week in the New York Times may have aroused more attention than others. The question was, were some of the results believable?

Couched in terms of negatives and positives, the poll asked questions as to whether voters might be more or less inclined to vote for someone depending on specific issues positions or their ethnicity.

So, for instance, the poll had a finding that 46% would be less inclined to vote for someone if he or she was a Muslim, 30% less inclined if he or she was a Mormon, 11% less inclined if she was a woman, but only 4% less inclined if he or she was black.

The troubling thing is that in polling, there is often such a thing as a right-or-wrong answer. If the survey asks a provocative question, it may assure a particular response. For instance, ask someone if they are biased, and a preponderant majority will say no. Maybe their real position is no, but it could also be that they realize a yes answer would stamp them as bigoted, and they don't want to be thought of as bigots, even if they are.

There are also such things as hard and soft answers. It may be that Mitt Romney confronts a real problem when 30% of those polled say they would be less inclined to vote for a Mormon. But how strongly do they feel that way? It could well be that it is a softly held position, and that Romney could overcome it by making the right approach during the campaign, just as John F. Kennedy overcame much anti-Catholic feeling by his presentation to Baptist ministers down in Texas and other campaigning in 1960.

I frankly am not inclined to believe that that 30% figure is solid.

On the other hand, it does not seem likely to me that the 11% who say they would be less inclined to vote for a woman, or 4% who say they would be less inclined to vote for a black person, fully reflect the difficulty either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama would encounter in a campaign, due or their sex or race.

Also last week, there was a poll indicating that while Clinton was favored for the Presidency among women, she had an unfavorable rating among men. And even among women, married and older ones were less favorable to her than unmarried or younger ones.

It seems obvious at this stage that Clinton is controversial. She has to overcome male antipathy to a woman president and a feeling among some women that she should be doing something less serious than running for President. It strikes me that the 11% figure found in the Pew poll, reflects the fact that this is a right-or-wrong answer, and that the responses might not be completely valid. It also seems to me that Clinton might have more trouble winning over the 11% who say frankly they would be less inclined to vote for a woman than Romney would have winning over the 30% who say they would be less inclined to vote for a Mormon. In short, I believe the 11% is a harder number than the 30%.

The same kind of considerations apply with Obama and the 4% who say they would be less inclined to vote for a black. This number strikes me as very suspect. I'm sure that there are more than 4% who would be less inclined to vote for a black. Saying so does raise even more directly than the women and Mormon questions the spectre of identifying one self as a bigot, and many of those surveyed would certainly hold back from doing so.

Also, these figures are not regionalized. In the Deep South, for instance, it seems certain Obama's being African-American could prove more of a handicap with white voters and less of one with black voters. In most Southern states white conservatives predominate and the whole move to Republican in the South in recent decades strongly indicates that the South would vote solidly, in terms of electoral votes, against a black candidate, in this case Obama.

The Pew poll did not ask how many people would be less likely to vote for an Italian. I don't imagine that would be as strong a negative as Romney faces in being a Mormon, at least going in, but it still would affect some thinking about Rudolph Giuliani, an Italian-American.

In short, it seems to me the Pew poll is useful only if read somewhat interpretively, with awareness of the syndrome of the right and wrong question, and attention given as to how firm the sentiments expressed are.

Similar questions arise with all the polls that are constantly taken about the Iraq war. Virtually all these polls have been in agreement that the Iraq war is unpopular, that most Americans do not think the war is going well and that most favor at least a phased withdrawal of American forces. I do not quarrel with the validity of those numbers, or the finding that the Democratic position on the war in Congress finds more favor at the moment than the Republican.

But, also, it is noticeable that when a poll asked whether Americans favor an Al-Qaeda victory in Iraq, the results are very different. There is every indication that while most Americans advocate a withdrawal of American troops, most do not favor a consequence of an Al-Qaeda victory. Also, while most favor a withdrawal, quite a majority feel a withdrawal soon is not all that likely, raising the question of just how hard or soft their position is.

Recent attempts by such liberal writers and publications as Michael Duffy in Time magazine and the editorials in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to discuss a withdrawal, at least partly in terms of the adverse consequences that might arise from it (i.e. genocide in Iraq, Al-Qaeda advances elsewhere in the Middle East, widening of the war outside Iraq and Afghanistan) reflect I think a sensitivity of these media to how adverse consequences might affect subsequent public opinion in the U.S. It could be that reaction in this country to terrorist advances growing out of an American retreat could, by 2008, fuel a Giuliani victory. Fear of such a reaction may explain why some Democrats in Congress have not pushed a withdrawal more than they have. They perceive that if a withdrawal is delayed until after 2008, there is not so much chance of such a reaction arising before the 2008 presidential vote.

The Iraq issue is a very complex ones. There too, the polls must be subject to rigorous interpretation, which may lead some policymakers in different directions than are commonly assumed.

"You can't live in a temperament of Gallup polls," Winston Churchill once declared. "You have to do what you think is right."

President Bush would obviously agree. But also he realizes that if the Iraq issue is couched in terms of Al-Qaeda prospects rather than an American troop withdrawal, the poll results are quite a bit different.

That is why the present argument whether it is Al-Qaeda we are fighting in Iraq or a whole collection of insurgencies is quite important. Mr. Bush's contention that it is primarily Al-Qaeda is resisted by the Democrats and the liberal newspapers, because they realize that if this comes to be the perception, withdrawal sentiment will diminish.

Already, there has been a slight bump upward toward Mr. Bush in the polls as to public feeling on Iraq, with about 42% supporting the President now as compared to 35% a few weeks ago. Also, 29% say the war is going well now, as compared to 23% a few weeks ago. It is clear that Bush has begun to make a little headway, arguing the consequences of an American defeat, but how hard or soft the new numbers are has yet to be seen.

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