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Polling with a purpose

Posted by Richard on February 28, 2006

The latest public opinion poll by CBS News and the way it’s been reported make it pretty clear (if there was still any doubt) that the major legacy media organizations use polling not to discover public opinion but to help shape it. The CBS poll has been trumpeted in every newscast and front page since its release: the President’s poll numbers have plummeted to an all-time low. Americans are unhappy with his performance across a broad range of issues and disagree with him about just about everything.

Never mind that the poll sampled far more Democrats (40%) than Republicans (28%) — after all, they did adjust the results so that the Dem advantage was only 37% – 28%. And never mind that it’s a poll of adults — not likely voters, or registered voters, or eligible voters, or citizens, or even just legal residents — any adult with a pulse and an ability to grunt responses would do for their purposes.

To really judge the quality and fairness of such a poll, you have to look at the questions (PDF). And CBS News makes that somewhat difficult. You see, the questions leading up to a given question can have a profound influence on how people respond to it. In other words, to judge the fairness and evaluate the results of question 30, it helps to look at questions 26-29. Well, too bad — questions 26-29 are "held for future release." In fact, quite a few questions are either "held for future release" or "held for separate release" (I have no idea what the subtle distinction is, or whether all the questions in both categories will eventually be made public): questions 13, 17-18, 24, 26-29, 32, 34-49, 66-71, and 76 (20 more are marked "blank").

Sometimes, however, you don’t have to hunt for subtle methods of biasing the results. Sometimes, they just plain lie right there in the question. For example, here’s question 55 (emphasis added):

After 9/11, George W. Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants. Do you approve or disapprove of George W. Bush doing this?

Just 46% approved (it went up to 51% when they added they phrase "saying this was necessary in order to reduce the threat of terrorism" to the first sentence). But does that question truthfully describe what Bush authorized? I don’t think so.

The CBS wording implies specific wiretaps on individual phone lines. As I understand it, the NSA program was both broader and much less specific — it monitored/screened multiple forms of communications (phone, email, text message, fax, etc.), but didn’t specifically target a given person or line (in fact, the government went to the FISA court for warrants against specific persons in the U.S. when evidence developed by the broad screening justified it).

But more egregiously, the CBS wording clearly suggests that Bush authorized the targeting and interception of calls within the U.S. That’s just plain dishonest. The communications that were monitored had to either originate from or terminate to a known al Qaeda operative outside the U.S.

There’s only one way both ends of a monitored communication could be in the U.S.: if an al Qaeda member flew from, say, Pakistan to the U.S. and while here, used a cell phone, email account, etc., activated in and apparently based in Pakistan, but unbeknownst to the NSA, temporarily in the U.S. I think that’s neither likely nor, if it did happen, a substantive violation of the restriction on domestic surveillance.

I’d rephrase the question like this:

After 9/11, President Bush authorized government monitoring of communications between known al Qaeda members in foreign countries and people in the United States without getting court warrants. Do you approve or disapprove of President Bush doing this?

Do you think the number who approve might be higher if the question were asked this way?

Which wording is more honest?

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