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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A quick lesson: how to misinterpret a poll to prove that Democrats are as nutty as Republicans

This item by James Vega was originally published on August 3, 2009.
A David Paul Kuhn column over at RealClearPolitics offers the thesis – stated in his title – that not just Republicans, but “Both Parties have their Fanatics.” While recognizing that substantial numbers of Republicans indeed believe against all evidence that Obama was not born in the U.S. , Kuhn argues that Democrats are equally –and in fact even more — delusional than the Republicans because a spring 2007 Rasmussen poll showed that 35% of Dems believed that “George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.”
On this basis Kuhn unleashes a veritable fountain of pejorative adjectives, even dusting off Richard Hofstadter to promote his “Dems are even more nutty and fanatical than Republicans” equivalency thesis.
He says:

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was title of historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous Sixties essay. “I call it the paranoid style,” [Hofstadter] wrote, because “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Kuhn continues:

Most conspiracy theorists’ fidelity is to theory, not truth. They tend to uphold a belief despite the facts. The possible, however improbable, trumps the logical. And it’s futile to attempt to disprove their belief. It’s like debating with those who believe the world is flat.

Having thus set the stage with these hefty portions of hyperbole and Hofstadter, Kuhn then says the following:

The disparate treatment of the two conspiracy theories is unmistakable. More Democrats fell into the “truther” camp than Republicans fall into the “birther” camp. But the mainstream media has covered the “birther” poll far more vigorously. It’s easy to understand, unless one is invested in the opposing camp, why these incongruities irk the political right.

Wow. Take that, you damn Democratic nutcakes. Democrats are not only nuttier than Republicans, but the liberal media, as usual, is giving them a free pass.
This is dramatic, to be sure, but unfortunately there’s a huge and basic fallacy in the argument.


There are two different ways that a survey respondent could interpret the Rasmussen question about Bush’s possible “advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks” – one of which is entirely rational and, in fact, undeniably true.
Gee whiz, come on. Doesn’t everyone still remember the warnings Bush received about the potential use of airplanes as terrorist weapons in the summer of 2001 – warnings Condi Rice admitted slipped her mind? Don’t we all remember the CIA memos saying that “something big” was in the works in September? Don’t we all remember the 9/11 Commission and Richard Clarkes’ dramatic statement that “We failed the American people”
These were not hallucinations or the product of fevered, paranoid Democratic brains. They were component elements of the undeniable fact that there were indeed significant advance warnings that a terrorist attack was in the works for the fall of 2001 – a fact that was the central subject of the 9/11 commission hearings, 10 or 15 books and hundreds of articles.
One would have to throw out every single academic study of the past 30 or 40 years about the effects of question wording on survey response not to recognize that, for many survey respondents who remembered the 9/11 Commission Report and other media coverage, the phrase “advanced knowledge of the 9/11 attacks” could be cognitively processed as meaning “The Bush administration had substantial advance knowledge from U.S. intelligence sources that a terrorist attack on the U.S. was being predicted as imminent in the fall of 2001” rather than “The Bush Administration had specific and detailed advanced knowledge about a particular group of 19 Saudi Arabian terrorists armed with box cutters and trained to fly commercial jet aircraft who planned to hijack four U.S. airliners at 9:45 in the morning on September 11th 2001 and attempt to crash two of them into the New York World Trade Center”
Now it is theoretically possible that all survey respondents actually parse poll questions like Biblical literalists and reply based upon the most narrow and rigid possible interpretation of each individual word. That’s not what the last three decades of academic research have shown, but a person could conceivably try to make such a case.
But simply ignoring the obvious problem that the wording of this particular question creates, on the other hand, makes the entire analysis completely unconvincing and ultimately tautological. You have to assume the conclusion – that Democrats are paranoid and delusional – in order to interpret the survey question in such a way that it validates the argument.
Yawn.

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