Least helpful…poll…ever

LEAST HELPFUL…POLL…EVER….In the unlikely event you haven’t seen this information elsewhere, Rasmussen Reports released a poll yesterday afternoon on the story we’ve all been watching closely: Bush’s warrantless-search program. Well, that’s sort of what the poll was about.

Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that just 23% disagree. […]

Eighty-one percent (81%) of Republicans believe the NSA should be allowed to listen in on conversations between terror suspects and people living in the United States. That view is shared by 51% of Democrats and 57% of those not affiliated with either major political party.

As with all polls, the wording of the question makes all the difference. This is a relatively complex controversy, so gauging public opinion on it requires a poll that appreciates the details. This one didn’t.

According to Rasmussen’s online report, the question for poll respondents read: “Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?” Given this phrasing, just under two-thirds said the NSA should be able to do this. John Aravosis makes the case that the number should have been much higher and I’m very much inclined to agree.

The problem, of course, is that the Rasmussen poll seems to miss the point of the controversy. Should the president order the NSA to eavesdrop without a warrant? Should there by any checks and balances on the president’s authority? Did Bush abuse his power? Should the surveillance program be subject to oversight? Do you believe the president’s program violated the law? These are the relevant questions in measuring public opinion on this controversy. Simply asking whether the NSA should “be allowed” to eavesdrop on terrorist suspects doesn’t tell us much. Given the wording, I’d say yes too, and I’m deeply concerned about the White House’s conduct.

When a poll is released with results that disappoint one side of an argument, there’s frequently a temptation to rationalize the results and spin them in a way that bolsters your position. That’s not the case here. The poll simply doesn’t offer any sense of what Americans believe about the controversy on the points that matter most.