Polls capture in either-or fashion attitudes that are more complex and mixed. Sometimes this is reasonable. In the run-up to an election, breaking the attitudes into up-down, yes-no constructs is valid, because the voter will eventually have to make an either-or choice. All shades of enthusiasm and approval will be reduced to sharply limited choices on election day. Two or three candidates will be treated with a yea or a nay, and the private reservations each voter has will be immaterial.
But between elections, an either-or poll deceives. Activists hope to show that a large percentage of the population agrees with them. Pro-choice advocates in the 70’s and 80’s would put forward numbers such as “80% of the American people believe abortion should be legal.” Yet the fundraising letters of the pro-life advocates would claim that “80% of Americans believe it is too easy to get an abortion.” If you aren’t reading closely, it is tempting for every activist to think “80% of the people pretty much agree with me.” Not so. There are 15-20% of people who are purists on one side or the other. The other 60-70% of the people believe that some abortions – perhaps many, perhaps few – should be allowed, but that there should be limitations.
In October of 2001, 85% of Americans answered that they supported George W. Bush in the War on Terror. As we hadn’t done much to that point, what they were supporting was that “America should have a firm response; Bush sounds like he’s going to be firm.” How people felt about Bush on education, or taxes, or trade hadn’t changed. What had changed was that those issues receded in importance in the face of danger.
Bill Clinton hung on gamely during the last part of his presidency by frightening his Republican critics off with the poll numbers that showed that 65% of the people didn’t want him to be removed from office. What was seldom reported was that almost half of that 65% didn’t think it would be a terrible thing if he were removed – they just preferred he not be.
Recently a lot has been made of several series of polls. The soldiers in Iraq want there to be a reduction in troops by the end of the year. This has been spun as an expression of soldiers believing “We’ve lost, it’s not worth it, this is all being mismanaged, etc.” A simpler answer would be that they hope to come home – and who wouldn’t? Similarly, much is made of the large percentage of Iraqis who want us to leave. Well who wouldn’t prefer that? You’d think it would be close to 100%, wouldn’t you? The range of Iraqi opinions is much more complicated than that. Some have hated us from the start and still hate us. Some generally like the result but resent our doing it for them. Some are cautiously optimistic but worried what the final result will be. Some think that for the little they’ve achieved, it wasn’t worth it. Some are just thrilled with us from start to finish.
Even the attempts to capture these gradations usually fail, especially in ambiguous and complicated situations such as Iraq.
Presidential approval poll numbers are especially deceiving. When Bush had 85% approval, he didn’t have 85% approval in the sense that he would garner 85% of the vote if the election were that day. It wasn’t a vote. In the same way, his 35-40% approval now doesn’t mean that’s how many votes he would get today. Because there is no vote today. It is the job of the political opposition to try and create a bandwagon mentality, giving people the idea that there is general dissatisfaction with the way things are, so why don’t you, John and Mary Public, get on the winning side with all the smart people?
It doesn’t mean we have to believe them. You would think this is obvious. But as commenters around the blogosphere know, references to Bush poll numbers frequently come up as evidence that “he’s wrong…everyone knows it…he’s not listening to the people…he’s tone deaf…only the blinkered are still supporting him…” Balderdash. Among those who disapprove of how the war is being handled, some think it should be prosecuted more forcefully. Some think it’s not going well but don’t necessarily think some other president would handle it better. Even among his supporters, much of the support is tentative. Neither the 61% who think it’s handled wrongly nor the 39% who think its handled well are solid numbers. Both disguise a variety of opinions by cramming them into an either-or option, when no such either-or option is necessary. We’re not voting for George Bush this week.
Now why would someone want to deceive us like this?