David Moore | September 26, 2008
Three polls, all at the same time, give three wildly contradictory pictures of the American public. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll says the public opposes taxpayer bailout of Wall Street by 55 percent to 31 percent, a result cited on CNN by David Gergen the night the poll was published. He used the poll to illustrate his point that "the American people" were angry with the thought of using government funds to help Wall Street firms. That theme seemed to dominate several of the networks' coverage of the issue, though it was contradicted by a Pew Research poll, published the same day as the Times/Bloomberg poll. Pew found that "Most Approve of Wall Street Bailout" (by a margin of 57 percent to 30 percent). Either a 24-point margin against the bailout, or a 27-point margin in favor. Could there be any greater demonstration of how confusing the media polls are to anyone who genuinely cares about what the public thinks? But then there is the Washington Post/ABC poll published the very same day as the other two, showing a very different public, one that finds "Tepid Public Approval for Fed Action," by a statistically insignificant difference of 44 percent to 42 percent.
ABC's Gary Langer acknowledges these discrepant results, writing that "Some analysts might say the results are contradictory; I'd suggest instead that we learn more, not less, by comparing and contrasting them." The "instead" clause seems like a non sequitur to me - it is obviously true that the results are contradictory and, yes, we can also learn "more, not less" by examining their contradictions. Perhaps especially enlightening, besides the fact that each polling organization phrased the questions differently (giving different information to the respondents), is Langer's point that only 27 percent of respondents had "strongly" held views - 9 percent in favor, 18 percent opposed. It hardly portrays the public as fighting mad against the government's plan to address the economic crisis, when almost three-quarters of the public seems more tentative than decisive.
Two days later, a CBS/New York Times poll found what might best be described as "tepid opposition" to the federal government's bailout plan - 42 percent who approve to 46 percent who disapprove. But after asking respondents about that plan (without specifying the details), the poll then gave respondents limited information about the plan Congress is working on, principally that the government would "provide" $700 billion of government funds to financial service companies in danger of going bankrupt. The question then asked if respondents thought it was a good idea or a bad idea, or "don't you know enough to say?" With that formulation, the poll found 38 percent opposed, 16 percent in favor, and 46 percent without an opinion.
An examination of all the poll results suggests a public that is mostly taking a wait-and-see attitude toward whatever plan the president and Congress might finally adopt, a conclusion that was hardly the dominant theme of any network, nor of any news media organization conducting its own polls. That the public might be ambivalent is not surprising, given how confusing the actual events have proven to be. As Langer notes, the vast majority of people don't feel strongly one way or the other. Moreover, as the CBS/NYT poll shows, close to half of the public expresses no opinion, when explicitly given that option. I suspect the percentage would have been even higher, if the poll hadn't given respondents information about the plan and then asked their immediate reaction to it. (It is also likely the direction of the results would have been different, if the information provided to the respondents had been more objective - perhaps including mentions of oversight, control of CEO salaries, public equity in the companies, and/or the "investment" character of the funds, rather than the implication that the money would be handed out to the companies with no strings attached).
It's true as Langer notes, that we pollsters can learn a great deal by examining the results of contradictory poll results. But that doesn't address the larger problem of how the general public and political leaders view them. We may think conflicting poll results are enlightening, but I suspect to many others, they merely demonstrate how untrustworthy polls are in the first place.