How to Lie With Polls

Populist LibertarianLike all of us, Jonathan Chait has written a couple of times on Robert Draper’s “libertarian moment” article in The New York Times Magazine where he claimed that young people were libertarian: socially liberal and economically conservative. The whole thing has come as a shock to those of us who know the polling data and are thus aware of the fact that young people are especially big supporters of government intervention in the economy. Chait’s article today is, How Libertarians Snookered The New York Times Magazine. I just want to write about a small bit of the article.

Much of Chait’s article is about Draper’s dependence upon a poll by the libertarian Reason Magazine. In the past, Chait has rightly referred to it as “advocacy polling.” The pollster, Emily Ekins, took exception to this. According to Chait, “Young voters, the poll found, favor a living wage, higher taxes on the rich, more spending on infrastructure and job training, and so on.” And Ekins ask if that sounded like a “libertarian advocacy poll.” It doesn’t, of course. And no one is claiming that people who do advocacy polling are bad pollsters.

But the whole thing shows how one can lie with polls. Imagine you were doing a poll of Democrats about government spending. You ask three questions. Do you think it is better to have a much bigger military or to have a smaller government? Do you think it is better to cut spending or provide more corporate welfare to millionaires and billionaires? Do you think the government should be involved in women’s reproductive health or that there should be a limit placed on the size and power of the government? The Democrats would obviously go overwhelmingly for the “small government” answers in each of those. But it would be totally deceptive to publish your poll results as, “Democrats Overwhelmingly Prefer Smaller Government.”

This is what Ekins did. The poll asked if people “prefer a smaller government with fewer services or a bigger government with more services.” The under-30 set preferred the bigger government choice by a large margin. But the poll also asked if people “want bigger government with high taxes or smaller government with low taxes.” Not surprisingly, this pretty much reversed the answers. I’m not fond of either of these questions. The size of government doesn’t really mean anything to people. But the first question does get to the heart of libertarian thinking: small government is good as an end in itself. There is no indication that the millennials actually have a problem with big government.

An even bigger problem that Chait points out is that the Ekins poll was only of the under-30 crowd. So it was impossible to compare the results to other age groups. When Pew did such a poll, they also did Gen-X, Baby Boom, and Greatest generations. And what they found is that the millennials were shockingly more liberal than the other generations, across the board.

It all reminds me of those stupid partisan fund raising drives where they ask for your opinion and a contribution. They contain questions like, “Obama should be impeached because: (a) Obamacare; (b) Benghazi!; (c) Fast and Furious; (d) all of the above.” That’s not an exaggeration. And they are obvious. But these kind of advocacy polls are much more professional and they look a whole lot more reasonable. But there results are predetermined by who is paying for them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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