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.”

Both by small margins.  Both in direct conflict with the results of polls whose questions make clear that they’re asking which party’s policies they (the respondents) prefer, not which party cares more about the issue.  That is, which party’s policy on the issue the voter likes better,  not which party is more likely to, say, reduce the budget deficit or “handle” gun policy.  Whatever the hell doing a better job of “handling” gun policy even means.

So, yes, that poll suggests that Republicans “hold a small edge on the deficit and gun policy.” Which, given the wording of the poll questions, and comparing the results to those from polls whose questions actually are clear with respect to their meaning, in turn suggests that some people thought the questions were asking not about the respondents’ own preferences but instead what the respondent thought were the respective parties’ preferences.  Great.

Sargent follows the paragraph I quote by musing, “The question is whether that small ballot edge will hold; the 2014 elections are 18 months away.”  He’s right that that’s a question, but wrong that that’s the only question.

Certainly, party-preference distribution within severely gerrymandered congressional districts is a big one–one that Sargent of course is very conscious of–and it’s the main reason that pundit after pundit says the Repubs will hold the House.  But there’s a related, less-obvious question, too, that Sargent doesn’t hint at: whether that small Dem ballot edge will increase during the next 18 months.

I think it will, and I’ll discuss my reasons in a later post.  My point in this one, though, is that I hope that mainstream journalists start doing a better job of handling political poll semantics when reporting on or discussing poll results, because the policies these unclear poll questions influence ain’t beanbag.