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Who Do You Think Can ‘Do A Better Job of Handling’ Political Poll Semantics?

Dems hold small edge in Congressional ballot matchup: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that voters support the Dem candidate in their district over the Republican by 41-37. Sixty seven percent disapprove of the Congressional GOP, versus 60 percent who disapprove of Dems. Sixty two percent say Republicans don’t care about their needs and problems; 54 percent say that about Dems. Republicans hold a small edge on the deficit and gun policy.

— Greg Sargent, Washington Post, this morning

A longtime pet peeve of mine is that so many major political polling organizations routinely phrase policy-preference questions so that the question can mean two separate, often conflicting, things, yet the results of the poll questions are reported as though the question had only one, surely-understood, meaning.

And, first and foremost among that type of question is of the “which party is better on” guns/taxes/the deficit/fill-in-the-blanks variety.  These questions almost always actually are phrased to appear to be asking which party talks more about the particular issue, or seems to care more about the issue.  Yet inevitably the pollster’s PR release represents the poll-question result as indicating the poll respondents’ preference for that party’s policy, rather than the poll respondents’ perceptions of the respective parties’ level of interest in the subject, and the news media dutifully treats it that way.

So the result from a poll question, Question 19 in the Quinnipiac Poll, that asked, “Who do you think can do a better job of handling – the federal budget deficit, the Democrats in Congress or the Republicans in Congress?,” is reported by the polling organization as indicating that voters “prefer the Republicans on the budget deficit.”  The result from a question, Question 21, in that poll, that asked “Who do you think can do a better job of handling – gun policy, the Democrats in Congress or the Republicans in Congress?” is represented by the organization as showing that voters “prefer the Republicans on … gun policy.”

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