frontiers of polling and interpretation

Today’s NYT features, on the front page nonetheless, a story under the headline “Poll Finds Frustration on War and Health Plan.” Note that on the website they’ve changed the title to “In Poll, Public Wary of Obama on War and Health.” There are several interesting, problematic elements to the poll and the way it’s presented.

First, as far as I can tell none of the poll questions asked about “frustration” or “wary”: emotionally loaded terms presumably added by the article’s authors and/or headline writer(s). Instead, the questions are about “support” and “oppose” and about expectations for outcomes of actual policy positions. As such, they’re about political identification, political knowledge, and prognostication, not about emotions of any sort, but the interpretation is both emotional and negative.

Second, the three prognostic questions about health care are all based on right-wing talking points, not on core elements of health care policy itself:

  1. “How will the changes to the health care system under consideration affect the Medicare program for seniors?”
  2. “Will the changes to the health care system under consideration allow tax dollars to be used to help illegal immigrants receive health insurance?”
  3. “Will the changes to the health care system under consideration create government organizations that will make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly?”

Pluralities on questions 2 and 3 say they “Don’t know enough,” which is reasonable, I suppose, but it’s too bad there’s not an option for “it’s not the most important consideration to me,” or “why are you only polling on right-wing talking points but not on the Administration’s talking points,” or “you numbskull, haven’t you heard that Sarah Palin’s death panels have been thoroughly debunked?”!

Third, even in this context, the poll shows 65% support for the public option and another 9% with “no opinion.”

Fourth, the story and the Web headline both suggest that the public is “frustrated” or “wary” with Obama. But when asked about who has explained plans for changing the health care system, 37% said Obama had explained it well, 8% no opinion, while 14% said the Congressional Republicans had explained it well, 10% no opinion. So to the extent that there’s frustration, it seems that it’s centered more on Congressional Republicans than on Obama.

Data don’t speak for themselves, and the public is an imagined, not a concrete, thing. But some interpretations are better than others, and particularly for the Newspaper of Record ™ this seems a rather egregious one.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “frontiers of polling and interpretation”

  1. I too thought this was a strange/inaccurate title for the article. What stood out to me about the poll results was that the modal response to most questions was “don’t know.” I think this title might warrant a Letter to the Editor.

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