Filibuster polls bias empty heads

Reading the latest public polling on filibusters convinces me that media polling is becoming something like blogging, only without the wit and delightful cynicism. Public polls and political blogs both purport to be about facts and information, but they’re mainly editorials. I was reminded of these thoughts this week when reading Dr. Frank Newport’s dismal treatise “Public Favors Keeping Filibuster Rule in U.S. Senate: Majority of Americans not Following Issue Closely, However.”

Reading the latest public polling on filibusters convinces me that media polling is becoming something like blogging, only without the wit and delightful cynicism.

Public polls and political blogs both purport to be about facts and information, but they’re mainly editorials. I was reminded of these thoughts this week when reading Dr. Frank Newport’s dismal treatise “Public Favors Keeping Filibuster Rule in U.S. Senate: Majority of Americans not Following Issue Closely, However.”

Newport is the editor of the Gallup Poll. Perhaps smarting from persistent and informed criticism of recent filibuster polls by the Media Research Center, Newport rises not only to defend his own organization’s polls for USA Today and CNN but also to be an apologist for polls by several other media consortia.

The only point that Newport makes convincingly is that Americans consistently oppose changing the filibuster as described by pollsters. The problem with his analysis is that the pollsters’ descriptions are hopelessly inadequate and often biased in favor of the filibuster. By inadequate, I mean that polls try to explain “filibusters” in 50 words or fewer to people who are generally uninformed and disinterested.

Ask any political-science professor if he’s ever been able satisfactorily to explain the filibuster to a class of daydreaming college freshmen in 50 words or fewer. Even with the specter of a grade hanging over their heads, most students won’t get it the first time. Imagine how attentive a Gallup Poll respondent must be if he’s a 30-something guy watching ESPN while taking the poll, or a mother cooking dinner with a kid on her hip, or a senior citizen straining even to hear the description.

These policy polls all face the same problem. Only a handful of Americans are truly interested in issues. Public polls are fine for election trial heats such as Bush versus Kerry. Voters get that. But policy polls reveal empty heads.

Newport readily admits that just 12 percent of his latest Gallup sample said they are following “very closely” news about the filibuster debate. But that doesn’t stop pollsters such as Gallup. They always preface the next question by saying, politely, “As you may know. ...” Then the pollster proceeds to try to explain what the previous question demonstrated that most respondents obviously don’t know.

The filibuster descriptions are all biased, too. None presents the filibuster as thwarting majority rule or blocking a straight up-or-down vote.

In his own introductory analysis, Newport sensibly describes Republican efforts to change the filibuster rule: “This would mean a simple majority vote (rather than the current 60 votes) would end floor debate on a nominee, clearing the way for an up-or-down vote to confirm or reject the nominee.” It’s a shame that Newport’s polls didn’t use language like that. His poll question said instead: “As you may know, the filibuster is a Senate procedure which has been used to prevent the Senate from passing controversial legislation or confirming controversial appointments by the president, even if a majority of senators support that action. A vote of at least 60 senators out of 100 is needed to end a filibuster. Do you favor or oppose the use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate?”

Newport needs to answer some questions himself. Why is the filibuster presented solely as a bulwark against controversy? Where is any mention of majority rule? Where is the reference to “an up-or-down vote?”

Gallup and other polls also confuse voters by simply asking whether Americans “favor or oppose” the filibuster. It is well-known by researchers that many poll respondents get confused whenever they are asked to react to negative concepts such as filibuster, recall, rescission, veto, etc. This confusion is why you see so many Republicans favoring the filibuster rule (43 percent in Gallup’s poll) and Democrats opposing it (31 percent). This is the most solid, data-based evidence that the filibuster polls are not to be taken seriously.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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