Democracy Arsenal

« Darfur's day in court | Main | Revenge of the $500 toilet »

June 07, 2005

Five Myths About Polling That Progressives Should Reconsider
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Last week’s commentary on the Zogby International/International Crisis Group Darfur poll between Kevin Drum and Suzanne and Derek -- and Nick Kristof's piece on the same begged for some broader commentary on what polls do and don’t tell us. I am aided and improved here by guest commentator Mark Lindeman, Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard and my personal unbiased (though progressive) polling expert.

Myth #1: Don’t know = don’t care.

Drum’s post gives us a good example of this one:

For starters, only 18% of the poll's respondents are even aware Darfur exists. The other 82% are either "slightly aware" of Darfur or not even that — and I'd bet my last nickel that "slightly" is just a face-saving version of "I couldn't tell you which continent Darfur is on if you paid me." So I'd take this whole poll with a large shaker of salt.

Now, what’s really interesting about this poll is that, though 82 percent start off saying they aren’t really aware of Darfur, 80 percent say they would favor establishing a no-fly zone. That’s pretty impressive for a crisis they’ve only just heard about. Tells you that maybe don’t know = gee, I was running the blender during that part of the news, or I thought it was a promo for that new LiveAid with the Spice Girls getting back together… but I know that mass killing and rape are bad, and I want to see it stopped… why don’t you tell me about it?

These kinds of numbers are an invitation to inform the public, not give up on them.

What Heather said. Right now, probably what most Americans know about Darfur or Sudan is that terrible things are happening and no one seems to know what to do about them. Most people don’t enjoy learning about terrible things they can do nothing about. (See myth #2 below.)

By the way, words matter. The poll designers asked respondents to describe their knowledge (sic) as “very aware,” “slightly aware,” “not very aware,” or “not at all aware.” It takes chops to consider oneself “very aware” of Darfur. (If this isn’t obvious, try reading my local paper for a while and see what you know.) So, Kevin Drum is probably wrong that so few people “are even aware Darfur exists.”

That said, I basically agree with Drum’s main point. (And I don’t know whether he intended to embrace Myth #1, although the myth is out there.) Sure, we can’t take literally the finding that “80% of Americans back a no-fly zone over Darfur” if many of them don’t know whether Darfur is a region of Sudan, an Iraqi city, or the villain in a possible Star Wars Episode Seven. The result doesn’t tell us what people think about this issue – they haven’t thought about this issue. But it gives us a clue about how people think, and what they might think once the issue is raised. Use that salt carefully!

Myth #2: Polls like this reflect a momentary frisson of horror, not a lasting concern.

Actually, Americans are pretty consistent:  they don’t favor willy-nilly introduction of US troops, but they do want to feel that the US is “doing its part” to solve huge disasters and problems. The quickest way to make this myth come true, by the way, is to keep emphasizing to the public how awful and hopeless a situation is; they will feel guilty, get overwhelmed, give up, and look away – same as most people do, foreign policy elite or not, when they see the same homeless folks outside the office day after day.

It’s true that Americans don’t have a “lasting concern” for (say) Darfur in particular. I think Heather sums it up nicely: Americans want the U.S. to do its part. The ICG survey dovetails with many other studies that show that Americans often enthusiastically support a wide range of international interventions, as long as they don’t feel that the U.S. is being left to “go it alone” as “the world’s policeman” or designated sugar daddy. (Check out the indispensable PIPA website, for specifics on this and other topics.)

Another take on “lasting concern” might be that Americans aren’t willing to “stay the course.” It depends on the course, of course (yecch). But the 2004 election suggests to many of us that the American public’s threshold of pain and frustration may be too high, not too low, if one has to choose. Yeah, Americans let their leaders get away with a lot.

Myth #3: Especially on international humanitarian issues, overwhelming majorities are needed to get anything done.

That is, 38 percent support for action in Darfur won’t cut it. Actually, all you need is a few hundred thousand, a few million tops, provided they’re the right million. Who has saved funding for AIDS in Africa several times when the White House wanted to cut it or roll back its promised increases? Not MoveOn’s millions… a few thousand activist evangelicals, and a few dozen of their leaders who were willing to hold the White House’s feet to the fire. If this poll were done on southern Sudan, I’m not confident the numbers would look very different. Yet the Administration put tremendous resources into getting a peace deal there. Why? Because some of their core voters cared a great deal. Ditto trafficking in persons. Heck, does anyone really think overwhelming majorities of the citizenry are in favor of CAFTA?

ICG commissioned this poll to help draw some attention to these issues. It’s the perennial line foreign-affairs advocates get on the Hill: “my constituents never mention foreign policy issues to me.” But they don’t actually need a mass national movement – though one would sure be nice. They need a targeted national movement. Suppose you commissioned a Sudan poll among evangelicals… or a CAFTA poll in swing states… might be interesting.

Yeah, I’m kind of bitter about this one. But I won’t belabor it, since Heather has covered it. Besides, this debate started in a different place, with Derek’s controversial claim that “doing the right thing is also wildly popular!” That seemed to evoke images of crowds marching in the streets and chanting, “Thank you, President Bush, for intervening in Darfur!” Maybe “wildly” wasn’t the best choice of words. But, dammit, Derek was on to something.

To elaborate on one of Heather’s examples: why did George W. Bush spend so much time in his 2003 State of the Union address trumpeting his commitment to spend billions fighting AIDS in Africa? Sure, it made part of his base happy, but it made lots of people happy. Because Americans are pleased to hear, in Bush’s words, that this “nation can lead the world in sparing innocent people from a plague of nature.” Who doesn’t want to live in a country that can do that, and better yet, actually does it?

Was Bush riding a groundswell of public concern about AIDS in Africa? Not hardly (never mind whether one can ride a groundswell). Did he find people begging to increase the foreign aid budget? No – typically most Americans think the foreign aid budget should be decreased, mostly because they think it is much larger than it actually is. So, was Bush exercising courageous leadership? Nope. He was in tune with the values that Americans consistently say they want the U.S. to stand for. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he had actually followed through on his promise without needing “help” from those evangelicals?

Myth #4: Looking at polls to make policy is something done by nasty, unprincipled politicians.  Real leaders with convictions don’t use or need polling.

Making decisions based on your conscience and intellect is principled. Refusing to use tools at your disposal to inform your intellect before making decisions is… not very bright.

I agree with that, but I will add something else. “Going against the polls” because you know something that most people don’t, or see consequences that they haven’t considered, is consistent with representative democracy. Going against fundamental American values is not. I think the normative importance of the polls is in helping to reveal those values, what Americans want the U.S. to be working toward, even if they don’t know how it should do the work. Those expressed values will be naïve, at times, but still worthy of attention. I won’t write about instrumental uses of the polls right now.

Myth #5: Besides, you can get polls to say anything you want anyway.

This one’s for you, Mark.

Let’s put this one in perspective. Public opinion polls are murky and ambiguous, like budget projections, or like satellite reconnaissance photographs. This is not an argument for ignoring them, it’s an argument for looking closely. Can you get a poll to say that the U.S. should attack Canada, or imprison all the millionaires, or rename Washington D.C. “Maoville”? Conceivably, if the question is sufficiently distorted, but it wouldn’t take a “polling expert” to spot the problem. Can President Bush get a poll to say that he has the right idea on Social Security “reform”? Heaven knows he has tried.

For around 70 years now, public opinion polls – not always, but sometimes – have served to rebut what “everyone knows” that just isn’t true about the American people. Lately, what everyone seems to know is that Americans don’t care about anyone or anything beyond the confines of their nation or perhaps their television. It just isn’t so. And if we use it as an excuse for silence on Darfur, then shame on us.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Five Myths About Polling That Progressives Should Reconsider:


This is an information post. Try this site to get a better handle on the ins and outs of polling:

I once have a lot of goonzu money in the game and i will go to buy goonzu gold to add my stock. I like the game very much and i like to earn the goonzu online gold with my friends together. I want to join the cheap goonzu gold and i can get a lot of equipment to arm myself. I like the game very much come on to join us!

I likeghost gold, it brings me many happiness. If you haveghost online gold, you can help others.

I hope i can get runescape gold in low price,
Yesterday i bought cheap rs gold for my friend.

I prefer the
wonderland money in the game. In fact, the
buy wonderland Gold is expensive.

Once I played angels, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have angels gold. He gave me some angels online gold.

Once I played angels, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have angels gold. He gave me some angels online gold.

Once I played angels, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have angels gold. He gave me some angels online gold.

thanks for your article!
Shoring scaffolding for construction is a very useful tool.
Books printed by China printing is very good quality and good prices.
Plastic products made by injection molding services with low costs and supeior quality.

Thank you for your sharing.! seslichat seslisohbet

The Nike air max Shoe lives up to its name with plush cushioning and a sleek silhouette. It brings you just what you need to style it up wherever you go. you can look at the Air max 2009,air max 90,Air max 95,Air Max 2010
* Minimalistic construction of leathers and synthetics in the upper
* Nike Shox technology for optimal cushioning
* Rubber outsole for excellent grip

Thanks for your sharing,and you will enjoy the sunshine service. Let's abandon all the worry, omega watch and enjoy the happy shopping travel.All the are most in fashion boutique this year. show your chaming temperament. In addtin, the and the other make you mold your unique glamour this winter. The swiss have the high quality but low price. nd have all the style and cheapest price Chanel Watch Enjoying the fun of net purchase! We will supply you the perfect service and after sale support system. Our honest will bring you absolute satisfaction. Aslo and are so good for you.

Time is money, and many people pay their debts with it.Do you like the ugg boots?

thanks for sharing Sohbet many people are pay more attention to one's wearing than before, especially a watch. Chat .
Perhaps when you went to some place far away Chat you must borrow it from friends Sohbet you can get everything you want in this game
Chat money to invest in other industry which will return you good profit. Sohbet when you look at the surface of the watches
Egitim from the city you live in and thought you knew nobody there exsohbet

Grand Lisboa

en güzel rokettube videoları,
en muhteşem sex izleme sitesi
en kral rokettube yeri
kaliteli pornoların bulunduğu tek mekan
yabancı sitelerden özenle seçilmiş muhteşem ötesi rokettube sitesi...

capabilities, equipment and funding. The most obvious short-term solution is a hefty NATO backstop to an AU force, likely going beyond the logistics, transport and training they are providing today to include actual troops in country (over the long-term, we ought

100m water resistance, though, which is a good tradeoff and a strong point in their favor Stark white hands, minimal text and graphics, and a reverse LCD display; it all adds up to outstanding legibility



doğal taş

relevant to the job in turkey there is a refreshing towel işyerimiz one site dedicated to ourselves that we could not do, but I think I will also not be right if ta yağacayız asp, but let's look at how your friends do you think?

providing today to include actual troops in country (over the long-term, we ought to be thinking about measures like those outlined here, including a long-term investment in developing capable military leadership for a

are vulgar and brash and a little bit vile, while our judges appear to be quiet pillars of probity. However, it is the former whom we choose to speak and act on our behalf. There are indeed times when an injustice is so egregious that the SCOTUS must step in and right a legislative wrong. But to believe that this is such a case

Nice! Thank you.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use