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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 03/11/2011

Where policy polls go awry

By Ezra Klein

I think polls are quite good at telling you the public’s level of support for a particular party or politician, and even level of support for a particular bill or law. But polls tend to really confuse people by also including information on the public’s possible level of support for a particular policy or piece of legislation. Matt Yglesias explains where things go awry:

People focus too much on polls about what “the people” think about “the issues.” What a lot of analysis misses is that (a) many voters aren’t paying attention at all and (b) most voters have stronger opinions about famous politicians than they do about issues.

So consider that among self-identified Republicans, getting more education makes you less informed about global warming. But that’s not because Republicans with BAs are ignorant compared to Republicans without them. On the contrary. Republicans with BAs are better informed about what the Republican view is and therefore worse informed about the underlying issue because the Republican position is mistaken.

One common mistake that flows from this is to overrate the relevance of polls showing that the public supports various component pieces of the legislation you favor. You saw this a lot during health-care reform, where the specifics of the law were popular but the law itself was not and liberals took that to mean they had a mere simple communications problem. What those polls really told you was that in a world where the two parties both agreed to support something like the Affordable Care Act, the Affordable Care Act would be extremely popular. But in a world where there was a bitter and endless fight over the Affordable Care Act, the Affordable Care Act wasn’t going to be very popular. Polls that try to gauge support for laws by testing policy preferences are testing a world we don’t actually live in.

By Ezra Klein  | March 11, 2011; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Polls  
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Never has it been more apparent that the polls are not a good indicator of what the public thinks on issues,than the Affordable Care Act.It wasn't just that they weren't paying as close attention to the issue as was needed,but the distortion and misinformation tactics going on made it almost impossible to define the problem it was supposed to address.
It was obvious that a major issue was the cost of health care but any attempts to show how it could be "affordable" resulted in cynical attacks.One could easily have come to the conclusion that no where in the world was there affordable health care ,yet we know that isn't true.
If America wants affordable health care,we are going to have to go into the streets and demand it.It won't happen any other way because politicians with vested interests in preventing it from happening will work against the will of the people if they even bother to listen to us in the first place.

Posted by: lindalrs | March 11, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Poll respondents are, by now, mostly aware that the results make their way into the media and national dialog. They look at polls as a way to vote for their side. And as the post notes, that view (esp for the R's) is usually pretty clear.
I'd like to see a research poll which would ask, e.g., is Obamacare supported by Osama Bin Laden, or is Barack H. Obama of Satanic origin. No question, a larger than trivial number would say 'yes' to both questions.

Posted by: drinkof_more | March 11, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I'm impressed Ezra. To actually question the basis of Polling is very un-Washington. Scientists, excepting Economists, but in fairness, including Political Scientists, have known for a few thousand years that there is a difference between drawing a square around a circle and drawing a circle around a square.

Posted by: gannon_dick | March 11, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm impressed Ezra. To actually question the basis of Polling is very un-Washington. Scientists, excepting Economists, but in fairness, including Political Scientists, have known for a few thousand years that there is a difference between drawing a square around a circle and drawing a circle around a square.

Posted by: gannon_dick | March 11, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I would put it a bit differently. Those polls that test policy preference are testing the world the "American People" really live in. But of course you are right - there is poor correlation between this testing and public opinion on a given law. That idea that all we need then is better communication has a grain of truth as well, but this view point needs to be heavily weighted by the reality of the communication required. The ACA was way to big and complex to explain. That is why the opposition was able to villify the whole effort with a few simple but well chosen messages. And the Dems who kept stalling the thing while playing for a better deal played right into the hands of the opposition. Moral of the story, keep it quick and simple and get it passed. Work on perfecting the thing in the next go-round.

There is a lesson for Dems in this in their current situation. The Republican deficit reduction strategy is going to be too big and cumbersome to explain. And, they seem to be falling into a trap of the perfect (or the better) being the enemy of the good. They are fighting amongst themselves on how far to go. This won't make their message to the public any clearer.

Now, if only we could find a few Dems to craft those well chosen and simple messages of vilification, the whole silly cut everything including taxes effort could be torpedoed in just a few months time.

Posted by: truthwillout | March 11, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

A very good post. It's true that a large majority of people are ill informed, and that's across all party lines. That's the worst part of party politics. No issue is as black and white, nor as simple, as political parties would have us believe. Most Americans consider themselves pretty moderate, and probably are when they consider any issue without being influenced by party hype. That said, there are things about which we need to think outside the box, be more liberal about. So the world is a little scary - it always has been and crawling under a rock doesn't make that go away.

And there are also times when we need to hold fast to our roots and remember where we came from, this nation of immigrants - for most of us come from somewhere else if we look far enough into the past. We need to remember why those ancestors came here, what they were looking for. But at the same time, we should not be blind about it. Wylie Coyote clinging to a plunging cliff face always springs to mind at this point. The falling rock is only false comfort; there's no real security there.

Posted by: cb11 | March 11, 2011 3:18 PM | Report abuse


Yet another strong reason for the great power to do good of try-and-see.

Ignorance is the greatest ally of the Republicans, and try-and-see is one of the most powerful weapons against ignorance. What happened to the opinion of Medicare and Social Security after try-and-see? What happened to the Republican lies and opposition after that?

And what's one of the greatest enemies of try-and-see, and thus great improvement in our country, and advancement of Democrat goals? The filibuster.

The Democrats should be going all out to end the filibuster, but what do we see? Ignorance severely hurts Democrats, and our country, not just from the outside, but from the inside too.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 11, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Left out of this analysis: when an uninformed/uncaring individual is cornered into taking a position on an issue, without the benefit of information or concern. Nobody really wants to answer "don't know/don't care", about the issues of the day.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | March 11, 2011 5:05 PM | Report abuse

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