What Was the Question?

February 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Survey questions may seem straightforward, but especially if the poll is a one-off, with questions that haven’t been used in other polls, you can’t always be sure how the respondents interpret them.

The Kos/Research 2000 poll of Republicans has been getting some notice, and no wonder. At first glance, it seems to show that one of our two major political parties is home to quite a few people who are not fully in touch with reality, especially when Obama is in view.

Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates White people?
Yes 31
No 36
Not Sure 33

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?
Yes 24
No 43
Not Sure 33

Should Barack Obama be impeached, or not?
Yes 39
No 32
Not Sure 29

I’m not sure what the results mean. Self-identified Republicans are about 25% of the electorate.* If one-third of them hold views that are “ludicrous” (Kos’s term), that’s still only 8% of the voters.

But what about non-ludicrous Republicans. Suppose you were a mainstream conservative and Research 2000 phoned you. To find out, I put some of the questions to a Republican I know – non-ludicrous (he reads the Wall Street Journal, he doesn’t watch Glenn Beck.)

Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama? (In the survey, 53% said, “yes.”)

Such a loaded question! I think she's nuts and he's sane – but in principle, she's right and he's wrong about most issues.

Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?

They don't WANT terrorists to win – no – but they don't care as much about the battle as most Americans do.

He might have said Yes to the interviewer just because he thought a Yes was more in line with the spirit of the question than with its actual wording. Or he would have refused to answer (and possibly have been put in the “Not sure” category?)

So the questions are more ambiguous than they seem, even on close reading.

Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world?
Seventy-seven per cent of the sample said, “Yes.” And Kos, who commissioned the poll in connection with his book – to be called American Taliban – will see that result as rabid pro-creationism and anti-science. But re-read the actual question. Here’s what my sane Republican had to say:

This one's easy:
Absolutely yes. “public school students should be taught” a lot of important facts about our culture and civilization – that the Greeks invaded Ilium and destroyed Troy, that Confucius was the inspiration for a great religion, that Thomas A. Edison invented the electric light bulb, that Darwin in his Origin of the Species explained how animals change according to the process of natural selection, and “that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world.” Why the hell not teach that fact? Who could say no to that?

Who indeed? Not me.

* The poll may have oversampled the fringe (see Emily Swanson at Pollster ), but those folks at the fringe are more likely to be active at the local level, so it’s possible they’ll swing some weight at the national level too. Their preferred candidate is, of course, Sarah Palin. So while political scientists think the poll may be exaggerating the far right (see Joshua Tucker’s excellent critique at The Monkey Cage), the Palinstas are hailing the poll as spot on.


Joshua said...

I would object to teaching that, "Genesis explains how God created the world." Taking the "cultural" approach that your friend did, I might not object to teaching that, "Some Christians believe that Genesis explains how God created the world." see the difference? Better still would be, "Many different cultures have creation myths. Here are some of them." IMO, that would put the Christian creation myth in an appropriate context.

brandsinger said...

Nice post, Jay. You present a simple, clear point, well analyzed.

Joshua: Interesting reply. Interesting in that you "might not object" to teaching that "Some Christians believe that Genesis explains how God created the world." Gee -- MIGHT not object. That means if you heard that the local teacher told her class "Some Christians believe that Genesis explains how God created the world" -- you MIGHT lodge a protest? Go to the principal... create a stink... pull your kid from class, etc.

Wow. go figger.

Jay Livingston said...

Joshua, I might also object that "explains how" implies that God's creating the world was a fact. All these objections serve to illustrate the larger point that sometimes survey questions that seem clear and unambiguous can mean different things to different audiences. So when we see the results of a single poll like this one, we should be careful about drawing conclusions.

And this is just about one question in one survey. When you get into what a teacher actually teaches in class, the problem of what is heard gets even more complicated. You and the combative brandsinger can hash that one out. I was just writing about the technical problems of survey research.

brandsinger said...

...and Jay... by logical extension... that "market research" is by nature a flawed tool not to be relied on for definitive (one might say dispositive) guidance.

Anonymous said...

It seems quite obvious that "Genesis explains how God created the world."

Is that the chariot with stallions gold?
Is that a prince of heaven on the ground?
Is that the roar of a thunderflash?
This is my world and it's waiting to be crowned
Father, son, looks down with happiness
Life is on its way

Ocean of motion
Squirming around and up and down
Pushing together
Scattering mountains all around you
(From "In the beginning")

It's all right there so the statement about Genesis is clearly true. Whether one accepts the veracity of this scripture and accepts Phil Collins as the messiah is perhaps problemmatic.

However, much of this discussion misses the distinction between a "survey" and a "push poll." the former is designed to obtain information while accepting the limits of Hawthorne or Observer Effects while the latter is designed to maximize these effects. e.g. How much more insight does the Livingston Blog provide than the other drivel available on the web? Once again, a straight forward quest for information? (Even if I lack the skills of a KosCo. and other big box surveyers.) or is it?

Jay Livingston said...

Hey Anony (nonny no), Thanks for the Word from Genesis. I didn't realize that Phil C. had replaced Dorothy C. on even your hit parade. And yes, as the Joshua Tucker critique said, the Kos poll was indeed getting pushy -- i.e., the Kos-poll truth wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Republicans believe Palin more qualified to be president than Obama
By John D. Atlas
February 12, 2010, 12:36PM

Most believe President is a socialist; One in three say he's a racist.

A non-partisan survey of 2,000 Republicans has found that a majority believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama. Despite the fact that he bailed out Wall Street and his key economic advisor Larry Summers worships the free market, nearly two in three of the GOP base believe Obama is a socialist.

The poll also found sixty eight percent of the GOP oppose Congress making it easier for workers to form and join labor unions. A large majority oppose allowing openly gay people to serve in the military, marry, or teach in public schools and receive state or federal benefits. And a large proportion of the GOP think that President Obama is a non-US citizen, a racist against white people and should be impeached.

A lopsided percentage of respondents to this poll are from the South (42 percent) as opposed to the Northeast (11 percent). My guess is that most Republicans in New Jersey don’t hold these beliefs. Also the poll includes only self-identified Republicans, which means that independent Tea Party activists are not included, although from the signs at Tea Party activities I suspect many of them like the majority of self-identified Republicans.

42% of Republicans believe, or aren’t sure, if their state should secede from the union. This could be good news for the New Jersey based Annin flag making company whose sales would soar if a few states seceded. We’d need millions of new American flags. The poll doesn’t specify if New Jersey Republicans support secession.

Conservatives, independents and liberals who pretend to love America, but only when they approve of the president and demonize him when they disagree with him, don't really believe in democracy, tolerance and our nation's founding ideals.