What Never? No, Never.

January 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A survey question is only as good as its choices. Sometimes an important choice has been left off the menu.

I was Gallup polled once, long ago. I’ve always felt that they didn’t get my real opinion.
“What’d they ask?” said my brother when I mentioned it to him.
“You know, they asked whether I approved of the way the President was doing his job.”  Nixon - this was in 1969.
“What’d you say?”
“I said I disapproved of his entire existential being.”

I was exaggerating my opinion, and I didn’t actually say that to the pollster.  But even if I had, my opinion would have been coded as “disapprove.” 

For many years the American National Election Study (ANES),  has asked
How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?
The trouble with these choices at that they exclude the truly disaffected. The worst you can say about the federal government is that it can be trusted “only some of the time.”  A few ornery souls say they don’t trust the federal at all. But because that view is a write-in candidate, it usually gets only one or two percent of the vote. 

This year the ANES included “Never” in the options read to respondents.  Putting “No-way, no-how” right there on the ballot makes a big difference. And as you’d expect, there were party differences:

Over half of Republicans say that the federal government can NEVER be trusted.

The graph appears in this Monkey Cage post by Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph. Of course, some of those “never” Republicans don’t really mean “never ever.”  If a Republican becomes president, they’ll become more trusting, and the “never-trust” Democrat tide will rise.  Here’s the Hetherington-Rudolph graph tracking changes in the percent of people who do trust Washington during different administrations.

This one seems to show three things:
  1. Trust took a dive in the 1960s and 70s and never really recovered.
  2. Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.
  3. Republicans really, really hate President Obama.


Paulo said...

Wow! Democrats trusted W. more than Obama... that does really surprise me.

Also, the problem with the question is that it measures how often one should trust but not to what degree. I might say that I very rarely trust the federal government because I think that absolutely everything they do should be reviewed and verified. That doesn't necessarily mean that I think that national parks are the first step towards UN internment camps.

Paulo said...

Or at least they trusted "Washington" more under Bush. I don't know if this data was collected prior to the gridlock.

Bob S. said...

Let's see Obama has repeatedly refused to compromise with Republicans (while negotiating with Syria for example).

Has repeatedly said "if I don't get my way, I'll go around you".

Democrats have been presented budget after budget.-- none have passed.
During the shut down, republicans offered concession after concession -- if the Dems were willing to concede a point or two.

They weren't..

Maybe, just maybe there is a REASON why Congress and Obama isn't trusted much.

Add to that the increasingly appalling information coming out about the NSA spying on Americans (wonder how Bush would POLL now?), The re-authorization of the NDAA and the indefinite detention of Americans....... I think it is a cumulative effect that is really starting to crack open.

Isn't it very telling that so few people (of either party) trusts the government 'about all the time' or 'most of the time'?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob S: What you’re saying is that Republican distrust of Obama is greater than distrust of other presidents because there are more REASONS to distrust Obama. That raises a valid methodological issue. Ideally, the research would have controlled for REASONS. Unfortunately, that’s a practical impossibility. How could we come up with an unbiased way counting and weighting those reasons? The trouble is that the people who didn’t trust Clinton (they tried to impeach him, remember?) or Nixon or LBJ or Lincoln or anyone else going back probably to George Washington all could come up with a list of REASONS just as long and persuasive as the list the Obama-haters can produce.

Bob S. said...

The reason Clinton was impreached because it was shown HE LIED.
Not that people didn't trust him.

The very list of people you cite -they all contribute to the reason why few people trust Obama. Not only did those people lie, they actively sought to restrict people's rights. This isn't a political party issue.

Unless you count the fact some people like the way one party or another infringes on rights. Me, I don't like any of them.

But if you want a way to count the reasons why people aren't trusted -- look at the scandals involving their administration as a simple method.
From Benghazi to Fast & Furious, the IRS targeting political Opponents to the DOJ dropping the case against the Black Panthers -- the Obama Administration probably has a higher scandal count than any other.

Jay Livingston said...

You argued that Obama was so distrusted by Republicans because they have more “REASONS.” My point was that opponents of any president can come up with a list of reasons for their distrust (and have done so) and that quantifying these reasons into a reliable and valid variable is nearly impossible. I mentioned only a few presidents, but I included a couple thought of as among the “greats” (Lincoln, Washington), and I could have added Jefferson, FDR, and most of the less-than-great.

You are now suggesting two distinct variables that you think affect distrust: “actively restricting rights” and scandal. The specifics you mention here fall into the latter category. As far as I know, there are no valid and reliable measures of either of these variables. Without those, all we have is people shouting, “Obama is the least trustworthy,” “No, Reagan was,” “No, LBJ was,” with each producing a list of REASONS.

Anonymous said...

Comment posted on Soci-Images:

"A survey question is only as good as its choices."

Agreed. I would probably have responded with the "Never" answer as well. While I certainly believe the Federal government is capable of doing the right thing sometimes, they are also capable (and often fulfill the promise) of doing the wrong thing. So while I *expect* the government to do the right thing in most situations, I certainly don't TRUST short-sighted, politically motivated, power-hungry officials to do the right thing.

"Republicans really, really hate President Obama."

This is quite the leap, and misleading as well. There is a more detailed graph on the linked Monkey Cage article. It shows rapidly declining Republican faith in government that extends into the Bush years:


The graph begins in 2002, but presumably trust peaked in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, when George Bush had 90% job approval. But no matter, draw whatever conclusion makes you feel better.

Jay Livingston said...

Just above that graph you link to, the authors write, “Republicans have, of course, taken this out-party distrust to a new low since Barack Obama’s election.” Maybe they too are leaping and misleading.

The trouble is that the graph shows those who say that the government can be trusted. What we want is a graph of those who say it can never be trusted.

The other problem with the graph is that it goes back only to Bush II. What we need is data going back much farther– say to LBJ as in the other graph. Then plot the overall trend of the decline in trust among Republicans and note the deviation from that line during the various Democratic administrations. Unfortunately, even if there’s a greater downward deviation for Obama than for Clinton and earlier Democrats (which is what I said I’d expect), we still couldn’t know whether that was about Obama or whether it was just a sharpening of the general downward trend.

Also, check Gallup on confidence in institutions. I think there’s a general downward trend for other large institutions like big business, television, etc. If so, then it’s not just about Obama, Bush, Clinton, et al.