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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who You Callin’ Obsessive?

by Scott Winship
OK…which one of you guys is responsible for this? Believe it or not, I had no role in putting that together.
As you may recall, I’ve been pretty tough on the demographic research firm American Environics. (see here, here, and here). My biggest criticism has been that their data appears to contradict the respected American National Election Study, showing strange trends and implausible levels of authoritarianism. The statistic that always seemed craziest to me was their claim that in 2004, 52 percent of Americans – not 52 percent of men, mind you – agreed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house”. Fifty-two percent? Surely no more than, say, 30 percent of women would agree with that, meaning that 70 percent of men would have to agree. No way.
And the NES justified my disbelief: 78 percent of adults agreed that “women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry and government”. Only 16 percent agreed in the General Social Survey that “women should take care of the home, not the country”. My current boss, Ruy Teixeira, and I came up with a number of other reasons to question their data.
Well, let me backtrack a little bit. I recently saw AE’s principals, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, give a presentation on their research. The first “interesting…” moment came when they announced that their survey had a question that matched the NES “equal role” question I just cited. They found that 87 percent – compared with our 78 percent – agreed that women should have an equal role. In other words, both surveys implied that Americans think men and women should have equal opportunities outside the home, but AE’s implied that a majority believes fathers should rule the home.
But I still wasn’t buying it. I next went to a breakout session that Nordhaus and Shellenberger gave. This was one of those times where I just couldn’t let go of something. So when I saw an attendance sheet being passed around the room, I got an idea that I shouldn’t have pursued…but I did. The conference was mainly comprised of state and local elected officials. All of them had seen Nordhaus’s and Shellenberger’s first talk. I wrote at the top of a sheet of paper, “What percentage of your constituents would agree that the father must be the master of his home?” I made three columns: State, Male Constituents, and Female Constituents. And then I passed it to my right, telling my neighbor that, “We’re supposed to pass this around.”
Then I watched as the survey made it to Nordhaus’s immediate left, was walked over to the attendee on Shellenberger’s immediate right, and eventually made it back to me. You can’t imagine how much I enjoyed this. I held onto the survey and later tallied up the responses.
Well, in the end I found that the average attendee thought that 43 percent of her or his constituents agreed with male supremacy in the home. “Interesting…” moment number two.
Of course, there were umpteen million problems with my “survey”. So late that night, when I should have been sleeping, I was instead looking for more evidence. Eventually I stumbled upon a polling data archive [$] that included a question that was worded almost just like the AE question. This question – in a 2000 survey administered by the marketing research firm DDB Needham Worldwide – asked whether respondents agreed that “the father should be the boss in the house.” And you just know what’s coming, don’t you? “Interesting…” moment number three. The survey found that 44 percent of adults agreed.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger found that people were becoming more male supremacist between 1992 and 2004, so the AE figure for 2000 is presumably lower than 52 percent. That puts the DDB Needham figure and the AE figure reasonably close – maybe eight points apart – but it’s still a fairly notable discrepancy.
Similarly, while AE’s data showed that 40 percent of Americans agreed that “men are naturally superior to women” in 2004, the DDB Needham data put the figure at 30 percent in 2003.
Now this sounds like I’m poking another stick in the eyes of Nordhaus and Shellenberger, but actually, I’m feeling a little better about their data. Their survey includes Americans as young as 15, and I suspect that if N&S excluded the 15-17-year-olds, their male supremacy figures would drop a little bit more, basically because a lot of teenagers are immature or disproportionately come from families and cultures with more traditional family roles.
Nonetheless, there are still a number of discrepancies between the AE data and the NES, including trends that go in opposite directions. In a perfect world, AE would provide access to their data, or at the very least more detail about their survey methods. But AE’s data is understandably proprietary, given that they operate in a competitive market. It should be easy enough, though, for them to provide additional basic tabulations so that others can compare them to other polls.
Anyway, how depressing is it that something like one in three American adults basically believes that women are inferior to men?….

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