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Polls, and the Phrasing of Questions

CBS News Director of Surveys Kathy Frankovic, on the question of questions -- specifically, how the phrasing of a poll or survey question plays in determining the response. In some specific cases, says Frankovic, the phrasing of the question doesn't matter:

It's easy to measure where the public stands on the war in Iraq these days -- it almost doesn't matter what you ask. Here are two examples from polls conducted in May. Between May 18 and May 23, CBS News and the New York Times asked: "Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the U.S. have stayed out?"

Sixty-one percent said the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq.

Earlier in the month, a USA Today/Gallup Poll asked: In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not? Just about the same percentage -- 58 percent -- said the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to Iraq.

Even though one question asked basically if the U.S. did the right thing and the other asked if the U.S. did the wrong thing, Americans knew what they wanted to say and gave fundamentally similar answers. The way the question was asked mattered little to the results.

Even some topics that don't make the top of the most important problem list can galvanize opinion and provide poll results that are consistent no matter how a question is phrased. I can think of at least three. One was long ago, in 1980, when the public overwhelmingly agreed with then-President Jimmy Carter that the U.S. should not participate in the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the Soviet Union's military invasion of Afghanistan. But two are much more recent.

In 2005, in every poll question, majorities of Americans supported the decision to remove the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, who had been in what doctors called a "persistent vegetative state" since 1990. They continued to support it -- and by similar margins -- a year after the fact. There is no question that many Americans used the Schiavo case as a way of expressing their own desire whether or not to be kept alive in similar circumstances.

The following year, in surveys conducted by six different organizations (CBS News. Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, ABC News/Washington Post, Pew, and the Republican Winston Group), using slightly different wordings, between 66 percent and 73 percent of Americans opposed the selling of operations of U.S. ports to a Dubai-owned company. It mattered little whether Americans were told that there were six ports involved, that ports were at that time being run by a British company, or that security was being provided by the United States. Even when those opposed were reminded specifically that the U.S. Coast Guard would handle security and that other ports were managed by foreign companies, nearly all those originally opposed continued to oppose the arrangement.

Americans give real opinions when they are asked about things that matter to them. Measuring opinion on those issues is easy. It's when we deal with some other topics where opinions can be less clear -- like polling about elections that are months away -- that finding the right answers can be hard.

Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!

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Editors: Lee Ward, Larkin, Paul S Hooson, and Steve Crickmore

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