David Moore, author of The Opinion Makers: An Insider Reveals the Truth Behind the Polls, is a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and Managing Editor of the Gallup Poll. He’ll be guest blogging here all week.

THE PUBLIC AND “GITMO”….In yesterday’s post, The Myth of War Support, I suggested one way to differentiate superficial opinion from opinion that is more deeply held: using a follow-up question to see whether respondents would be “upset” if their opinions were ignored by political leaders. I characterized people who would not be upset as “not caring,” which several people criticized.

It’s important not to be distracted by this word. The key point is that there is a distinction between “permissive” and “directive” public opinion. When people say they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they just said they preferred, I interpret that to mean they “permit” their leaders to do what the leaders deem most appropriate (not that the people don’t “care” about the issue, per se).

People who say they would be upset if their opinions are contradicted by the government have what I call a “directive” opinion — they have a view about the situation which they want to see prevail. If the government does the opposite of what these people want, I assume that they would be upset enough to try to change the objectionable policy, even if only by eventually voting against political leaders who supported it.

Once this concept of directive vs. permissive public opinion is understood, it provides considerable insight into understanding poll results. Most polls simply don’t make the effort to discover how many people hold permissive opinions. Instead, the polls pressure people to make a choice, however flimsy it might be, and pollsters then report all results as though they were equally important. Often such “public opinion” appears to give majority support to controversial policies, when in fact such is not the case.

A good example is found in the public’s reaction to closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States is holding many terrorist suspects. Numerous political leaders have called for closing the base, including John McCain, Barack Obama, and five former secretaries of state, who served under Presidents Nixon, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. But what does the public think?

In July 2007, Gallup asked an objective (but “forced-choice”) question: “Do you think the United States should — or should not — close the prison at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba?” By a 20-point margin, 53 percent to 33 percent, Americans said the prison should not be closed. Just 13 percent were unsure.

The follow-up question found 39 percent of respondents, who had just expressed an opinion, immediately acknowledging they would not be upset if the opposite happened of what they had just said — including 25 percent objecting to closing the prison, but not upset if it were closed; and 14 percent favoring closing the prison, but not upset if it were to remain open. If the 39 percent is added to the 13 percent who initially indicated they had no opinion at all, that shows a majority of Americans, 52 percent, with a “permissive” opinion.

These results demonstrate how misleading the standard approach to measuring public opinion can be. Instead of a strong public consensus in favor of the prison, a majority of Americans hold a “permissive” opinion — willing to let the government do what it feels is best. And the margin of opposition is a more modest 9 points, rather than the 20-point margin found by the standard question.

Also missing from this analysis is how much anybody knew about the prison and the controversy surrounding it. For people not paying attention, all they might know is that Gitmo was a “prison,” information provided in the question itself. And they might be hard pressed to figure out why anyone would want to close a prison. Usually pollsters refuse to find out how much people know, because widespread ignorance of the issue could undermine the rationale for the poll itself.

The implication of the directive vs. permissive dichotomy is that political leadership is a crucial element in American democracy — a fact that seems to get lost in the flurry of superficial polls.

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