1 October 1999
Our current howler (part IV): No opinion
Synopsis: If pollsters give the public a chance, theyll admit they dont have an opinion.
Gore still unknown to some Americans
August Gribbin, The Washington Times, 9/19/99
Getting to know you ("Washington" column)
Paul Leavitt, USA Today, 9/16/99
Commentary by Robert Siegel, Robert Blendon
All Things Considered, NPR, 9/7/99
There's no end to the data on public misinformation, once one
starts wading through it. Case in point: a recent Washington Times
report on a survey by Project Vote Smart. August Gribbin led off with Al Gore:
GRIBBIN: More than a fifth of the nation's 18- to 25-year-olds
and 19 percent of those 26 and older don't know that Al Gore is
the nation's vice president.
Gribbin treated this as surprising news, but such figures routinely
emerge from information surveys; six months into the Bush administration,
for example, 25% of adults couldn't name that administration's
widely-discussed VP. But these data are normally treated as surprising
anomaliesand scribes often devise reassuring explanations for
the public's embarrassing ignorance. Here was USA Today's Paul
Leavitt, with a teaser for a longer poll story:
LEAVITT: Americans typically pay little attention to the presidential
line of succession and that is evident in a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup
Poll. It found that 48% of adults surveyed said they "never
heard" of Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who as speaker of the House
is just two heartbeats away from being president. (Poll results,
What explains the Hastert numbers? Americans don't pay attention
to the line of succession! Leavitt presents the number
as an outlier. In fact, such public ignorance of basic facts is
the well-established norm.
Why does the press tend to gloss this phenomenon? At THE HOWLER,
we try not to read minds. But the tendency produces problematic
polling stories, in which newspapers routinely present figures
on public opinionwithout telling readers that the people polled
don't much know what they're talking about. Who would think from
reading current White House polls, for example, that roughly half
of American adults can't even name a candidate? How meaningful
are the results of such polls, when respondents are so uninformed?
It's a question that we simply never see askedbecause the press
corps typically won't report the information. Newspapers generally
didn't report the results of the recent Pew survey (see THE DAILY
HOWLER, 9/29/99 and 9/30/99).
A second fascinating recent survey showed the direction in
which polling should head. The NPR-Kaiser-Kennedy School poll
conducted an intriguing experiment. The poll asked voters to state
their views on two current education issues. Robert Siegel explained
SIEGEL: Now an interesting finding about polls...It's about the
answer that we often too hastily discard, the answer, "I
don't know." The folks who designed the education poll did
something special with two of the questions, one about school
vouchers and one about charter schools. Half the people surveyed
were asked..."Are you in favor or opposed to vouchers or charter
schools?" And half were given the third option, "I haven't
heard enough about that to have an opinion."
The results of the experiment were remarkable. Among respondents
asked simply if they favored or opposed charter schools, here
was the breakdown:
Favor charter schools: 62%
Oppose charter schools: 29%
Don't know: 9%
The nine percent had voluntarily said they didn't know. But
for the second group of respondents, "I don't know"
was given as an explicit third choice. Here was the new breakdown
Favor charter schools: 25%
Oppose charter schools: 12%
Don't know: 63%
Obviously, when the poll is conducted in the first way, it
produces a completely misleading impression. But that is the way
opinion polls are routinely conducted and reported. Poll stories
routinely give the impression that an informed electorate has
weighed in on a policy question. It's a pleasing image, straight
from our civics textsbut one that is frequently wrong.
Why don't polls give "I don't know" as an option?
We had to chuckle as Professor Robert Blendon, from Harvard's
Kennedy School, answered the question for Siegel:
BLENDON: Most people who would be interviewed would find it
very annoying to be asked this question about no opinion all the
time for things they were familiar with. Can you imagine the Lewinsky
scandal polling, which was every day, or the question of how good
are the teachers in your community schools? People would really
resent being asked that. They would feel that they did know where
they stood, and just question after question would seem highly
annoying to them.
People would find it annoying! Another possibility didn't come
upthe possibility that pollsters don't help respondents say "I
don't know" because they don't want to reveal that their
polls are of limited value. How valuable are opinion polls, after
all, if nobody has an opinion? We were also a bit surprised by
the importance Blendon placed on the feelings of a poll's
respondents. Are we trying to get accurate information when we
poll, or are we trying to make respondents feel good?
All too often, it seems like the latter. Here was Blendon,
explaining why respondents don't say that they don't have
BLENDON: Most Americans want to be good citizens, so if you
ask them about something that's important, they want to say that
"I have an opinion," and they're uncomfortable to say,
"Look, I just haven't heard enough." That's what we
found. On these two questions, a lot of people are uncertain about
where they come out. And once we said it's OK to say that, then
that's what they reported.
The pleasing explanations never end. Why do people state a
view when they don't really have one? It's because they want to
be good citizens! Of course! As we saw yesterday: in the press
corps and in academe, the public is simply always right. The pandering
typically found among marketers invades and distorts the public
Do Americans avoid saying "I don't know" because
they want to be good citizens? In fact, the human disinclination
to say "I don't know" was described at the dawn of the
west. Socrates, quoted in Plato's Apology, described his
experience when he searched all of Greece for someone wiser than
SOCRATES: Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person...and
in conversations with him I formed the impression that although
in many people's opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared
to be wise, in fact he was not. Then when I began to try to show
him that he only thought that he was wise and was not really so,
my efforts were resented...
Socrates dutifully labored on in the face of persistent respondent
resentment. Perhaps today's pollsterswho tend to gloss public
ignoranceare familiar with the rest of his tale.
In fairness: Blendon did suggest listing "I don't
know" for certain polling questions:
BLENDON: Where it really mattersand it's the lesson from the
pollis on a new issue or a very recent event in the news where
people are almost glad that you gave them a chance to say, "Of
course I haven't heard enough to be sure of my opinion."
Dan Yankelovich, who's a very well-known figure in American polling...[is]
very concerned that many of the polling groups overstate public
support or opposition to an issue just on this finding.
Blendon's suggestion is a first step. But we suspect some pollsters
and scribes resist "I don't know" because it lessens
the apparent value of polls; undermines the value of easy poll
stories; and forces the press to confront an awkward storythe
persistence of public misinformation.
Balzy's report: Dan Balz, on last night's NewsHour,
discussed the fact that the Bush campaign has spent $19 million
BALZ: The Bush campaign has prided itself, and bragged really,
that it is a frugal campaign, a skinflint campaign, that they
watch all their pennies. The reality is they are spending money
at a much higher rate than Al Gore, who has gotten a lot of criticism
for the amount of money his campaign has spent.
Say what? Balz continued:
BALZ: In terms of the percentage of how much he's raising versus
how much he's spending, [Bush is] doing better than anyone else.
But this is not a tight-fisted campaign. They're spending it where
they need to spend it and they're building a national organization
with the money they're raising.
Exactly as Gore has done? With third quarter figures becoming
public, we'll almost surely do a full set of reports on third
quarter fund-raising stories. But Balz's statements flew in the
face of the miserable pair of articles in his own paper, the Post,
on which we reported in July (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/99 and
7/19/99). In those articles, Ceci Connolly typed up the Bush campaign's
spin about how incredibly frugal they were (and about what a spendthrift
Gore was). Most remarkably, in two consecutive page-one stories,
Connolly never reported the actual spending figuresthrough the
second quarter, Gore had spent $8.1 million, Bush had spent $7.2
million (despite starting his campaign somewhat later). These
figures would have been impossible to reconcile with the exaggerated
claims made in Connolly's articles. So, incredibly, the Post simply
dropped the simple data, subjecting its readers to Connolly's
We express no view on who is frugal, or profligate, or spending
wisely or unwisely. We do suspect it will be interesting to review
what has been said about the "wasteful" Gore campaign.
Wasteful Gore has spent $14 million. Bushperhaps with perfectly
good reasonhas spent 35% more.
Late filing from Thursday:
Anchorman, tell us a story: On Wednesday night, Brian
Williams discussed John McCain's appearance at the Reagan Library.
We reprint his remarkable report:
WILLIAMS: At the Reagan Library in the state of California,
what happened today may be another sign of the widely
talked-about bad blood between the Reagans and the BushesNancy
Reagan, in a joint appearance with Senator John McCain, in a meeting
room prior to an announced event, something that looked and
felt like an endorsement from the first lady in a hugely popular
administration in this country. There is speculation that
the former first lady's support of McCain, Bush's chief rival,
is the best evidence of that bad blood. The new Reagan biography
out offers the clearest evidence yet that the Bushes were not
particularly welcome in the Reagan White House.
This report is undisguised gossip. Mrs. Reagan's appearance
"may be" a "sign" of the bad blood that has
been "widely talked-about." Is there any such feeling
on Mrs. Reagan's part? Williams shows no sign of knowing. Did
Mrs. Reagan's appearance provide evidence of bad blood?
"There is speculation" that it did, Williams says. Nor
does Williams say that Mrs. Reagan endorsed McCain; he only says
that it "looked and felt like an endorsement." It is
astounding that this is reported as news. But then, what did you
expect from a news organization that broadcasts Chris Matthews