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1 October 1999

Our current howler (part IV): No opinion

Synopsis: If pollsters give the public a chance, they’ll admit they don’t 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 anomalies—and 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, 6A)

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 opinion—without 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 asked—because 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 the procedure:

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 in opinion:

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 texts—but 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 up—the 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 a view:

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 discourse.

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 himself:

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 pollsters—who tend to gloss public ignorance—are 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 matters—and it's the lesson from the poll—is 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 story—the 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 to date:

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 figures—through 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 grisly spin.

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. Bush—perhaps with perfectly good reason—has 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 Bushes—Nancy 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 each evening?