Poll Literalism

POLL LITERALISM….Everybody is beating up on David Brooks for his column yesterday, and rightly so. As he does so often, Brooks based his Tuesday column on the conceit that he has some special insight into what “ordinary” voters think, an insight that (a) usually turns out to be remarkably close to what David Brooks himself thinks and (b) bears little relation to what actual polls say.

This is one of Brooks’s worst habits, and it’s a tiresome one. But there’s an opposite habit that can be equally dangerous: “poll literalism.” This is a common malady among liberals — I’m guilty of it myself periodically — who frequently claim that “everyone agrees with us” based on poll results that show support for liberal positions on a wide variety of issues. And it’s true: polls really do show this with some regularity. Unfortunately, answers to poll questions come in a vacuum. They don’t show what people think once the other side has a chance to get a few licks in.

Here are two examples. First, withdrawal from Iraq. A recent New York Times poll showed that 65% of respondents want to withdraw either some or all of our troops from Iraq. Hooray! The country is with us! But then the Times asked a followup question: “What if removing troops meant Iraq would become more of a base of operations for terrorists, then would you still favor removing U.S. troops from Iraq, or not?”

Guess what? Of that 65%, only 30% still favored removal. That’s a huge drop based on a single hypothetical, and in a real campaign that hypothetical would practically blanket the airwarves. It wouldn’t convince everyone, of course, but it would probably convince a sizable chunk. The odds are that in real life — i.e., during a campaign in which voters were responding to actual arguments instead of casually answering poll questions over a telephone — there’s something like 30% who want to stay in Iraq, 30% who want to get out, and 40% somewhere in the middle who aren’t really sure what to do.

Example #2 comes from a much derided recent poll conducted by Celinda Lake for Joe Biden. The reason it was derided (aside from the fact that Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza failed to inform his readers that Biden was behind the poll) was because of the wording of one of the questions: “Some people say [your Democratic incumbent] is a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton and will support her liberal agenda of big government and higher taxes if she becomes president,” the poll stated, before asking respondents whether they would still vote for their incumbent or choose a Republican candidate.

Outrageous! And it is. On the other hand, that’s exactly what Republican House candidates are going to say, isn’t it? Which means that this poll, showing a 6-point lead for Democratic incumbents, is probably more useful than generic polls showing a 10 or 15 point lead.

Now, obviously this works in both direction: liberals get to make arguments during campaigns too. But conservative arguments appeal to fear pretty effectively, which means that on difficult, highly charged issues, like withdrawing from Iraq, a lot of people tend to be schizophrenic. One day they want to get out, but then they see a scary TV ad and the next day they don’t.

Brooks has a bad habit of ignoring poll results that he doesn’t want to acknowledge, but it can be nearly as debilitating to go in the other direction and take poll results too seriously. Middle America may not be as hawkish as Brooks imagines them to be, but they probably aren’t as noninterventionist as the blogspheric left imagines either. The truth isn’t always in the middle, but in this case it probably is.