Devotees of opinion polling had a really delightful time last week. They had front-row seats for a heavyweight match between two really major contenders – Democracy Corps and the newly founded Resurgent Republic.
The match started when Stan Greenberg called out Whit Ayers, the pollster behind Resurgent Republic, on two issues – the way Resurgent calculated partisan identification and the phrasing of their questions. (Greenberg’s initial statement can be found here)
Ayers replied (here) and then Jon McHenry of Resurgent and Andrew Baumann of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research – which does D-Corps surveys — took up the party ID question here — with Nate Silver jumping in as well.
For polling methodology fans, as the saying goes, “it don’t get much better than this.” But for non-methodology buffs, the second issue — of question phrasing — was really more engaging. Stan sharply questioned the language of one question – on equality vs. opportunity — and also made the following observation on Resurgent Republics’ questions about Obama’s budget.
Your Republican leaders would have been well served had you asked first whether voters favor or oppose the budget, without describing it – as Democracy Corps does routinely. That would have shown a majority or large plurality in favor of the budget, as in all other polls. Instead, your survey begins with this stunningly biased description: “President Obama has proposed a budget for next year that would spend three point six trillion dollars and have a deficit of one point four trillion dollars.”
That would be okay if you think that is all voters will learn from the media and Democrats about the budget. I suspect they are already hearing about inherited deficits from Bush, the funding for the jobs recovery plan, health care reform, education and energy independence, and about deficits cut in half – all aspects of the budget. Don’t you think the leaders and groups you are advising deserve to know how this might really play out?
We followed the initial question about the budget with a series of left versus right arguments. We say, for example, “Candidate A says that investments to address unmet needs in education, energy, and health care are necessary to bring the country out of recession.” We think that is a fair statement of one of the arguments made on behalf of the budget. While we can quibble about a phrase here or there, I am confident that a fair-minded person who reads the entire series of arguments will conclude that we have done an honest job capturing the perspective of the left on the budget.
Well, OK – I’ll bite. I’m a fair-minded kinda guy. Let’s go and take a look at those other questions.
To start with, here’s the full text of the question that Ayers cites above:
Q.22. Candidate A says that investments to address unmet needs in education, energy, and health care are necessary to bring the country out of recession.
Candidate B says that the Obama Administration is taking advantage of the recession to make massive increases in government spending that will hurt our economy in the future by nearly tripling the national debt in ten years.
Hmmm, this really doesn’t seem particularly unfair to anyone. It reasonably poses a Democratic “investment in unmet needs” perspective against a Republican “spending and debt” focus.
But, inconveniently for Republicans, on this question the Democratic position wins hands down 51% to 43% – a net plus of 8%
Conclusion? The question seems fair and the Democrats solidly win.
But now let’s look at the other questions in the same series about the budget. In fact, two things start to happen – the questions themselves get more and more favorable to the Republican position and – surprise, surprise – the Democratic advantage declines.
For example, when Ayers takes away the notion of “investment in unmet needs in education, energy and health care” from the Democratic position and replaces it with the much more vague and undefined “spending to stimulate the economy” here’s what happens:
Q.19. Candidate A says the proposed level of federal spending is necessary to stimulate the economy and keep us from sliding into a depression.
Candidate B says the proposed level of federal spending will make the economy worse by doubling the national debt in only five years.
The Democratic advantage slips to 2% — 48 for candidate A vs. 46 % for candidate B
Well, from a Republican point of view that’s a whole lot better, but it’s still not good enough. As the saying goes, “they ain’t goin’ for the draw, they’re goin’ for the win”. So what would happen if we pushed the matter even further – by focusing a question just on the issue of increasing government debt alone — and also by throwing in an ad hominem attack on Obama — and also by changing the subject in the middle of the question – all at the same time.
Q. 21. Candidate A says that increasing the debt is a necessary step in fighting a serious recession.
Candidate B says that President Obama is being hypocritical by adding more than nine trillion dollars to the debt after attacking Republicans for growing it by two trillion dollars.
In this case, the result is no better –a two point Democratic advantage still remains – 48 to 46%. Dang, those pesky Democrats are just damn stubborn.
OK, that does it. It’s time to take off the gloves and really get to work. Let’s see what happens if we use extremely cold, abstract and uninvolving words for the Democratic alternative and then sharp, punchy, TV sound-bite language for the Republican alternative:
Q. 18. Candidate A says the proposed budget is a reasonable response to a serious recession and collapse of the financial markets.
Candidate B says the proposed budget spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much.
Mmmm,– we get an 8 point Republican advantage on this one – 43% for candidate A (who sounds an awful lot like Mike Dukakis at his most wonky) and 51% for candidate B (who sounds a lot like Newt Gingrich when the cameras are rolling and 15 microphones are stuck in his face). Now that’s more like it.
But, hey, since we’re trying out stuff here, let’s see what happens when we go for the “full Limbaugh” – on the Democratic side a flat, post-lobotomy monotone and on the other a veritable kitchen sink of slogans – “squandering money” “pork barrel projects” “bailouts” “big spending” “few jobs”
Q. 25. Candidate A says the federal government has to do more during times of economic crisis, and spending by the government stimulates the economy and creates jobs.
Candidate B says the federal government is squandering money on pork-barrel projects, bailouts, and big spending programs that create few private sector jobs.
Whoa, now that’s some really big roundhouse punches getting thrown here. But confound it; we seem to have hit a wall. This question only produces the same 8 point Republican advantage as the last one. 43% for candidate A, 51% for candidate B.
Oh well, it doesn’t look like there’s much more tinkering we can do with these budget questions without throwing in the well-known (at least on the rightroots internet) facts that Obama is a wanted international Moslem terrorist and also Joe Stalin’s illegitimate Black grandson.
OK, now I admit I’m being a good deal more than slightly tongue in cheek here, but the point is serious. When Ayers says “I am confident that a fair-minded person who reads the entire series of arguments will conclude that we have done an honest job capturing the perspective of the left on the budget,” anyone who doesn’t burst out laughing like a hyena simply has to be getting a paycheck from the RNC.
But Ayers is not foolish or wasting his clients money. These questions are useful. They essentially represent message research to determine just what “works” and what doesn’t and how far the Republican message has to be favored to outpoll the Dems. When Resurgent Republic drafted these questions they had a pretty good idea of how they would poll. But by trying out a variety of question wordings side by side, they provide a more precise idea of just how much changes in rhetoric and language can actually influence the debate.
But as for their larger political significance, I’ll leave the final word to Stan Greenberg in his message to Ayers:
For years, James Carville and I pushed Democrats and liberal groups to examine inherited positions in new times, but you are at risk of doing the opposite – urging Republicans to stay the course on key arguments with self-deluding results.
In some cases, you prove competitive or you win the argument by presenting the Democratic argument as flat but the Republican, full of emotive terms. In Democracy Corps, we always try to use the language actually used by our opponents.
Nothing is more self-defeating than attributing to the Democratic argument the language and themes Republicans use to attack Democrats rather than the language Democrats use themselves. In effect, your survey has you winning an argument with yourself.