Does this post make you nervous? What if you knew that the reader before you answered yes?
According to Scott Clement over at Foreign Policy the key to understanding polling is knowing how the questions are asked. When it comes to bombing Iran, the Washington Post polling analyst claims that many factors affect what we claim to support in polls. Important components include the wording of the question, the frame in which it is presented and the information coming from our political leaders. But is this really news?
The piece presents a variety of polling numbers on Iran; some are consistent in illustrating specific trends while others show no trends at all. This is not the point. Clement’s main focus is explaining why simultaneous polls asking seemingly similar questions can glean such different responses. He writes “The public picks diplomacy when the question is framed as a choice between going to war with Iran and a solution by other means. But most prefer action when the choice is between ‘avoiding conflict’ and allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”
He goes on to conclude: “The wording of a given question plays a big role in framing the way poll respondents think about the issue and, thus, their answers.”
But is this a surprise?
Polling captures the opinions of only a small sample size in hope of illustrating the desires of a greater population. Consider that many people are less informed than ever about foreign affairs, that their opinions are affected by the rolling tides of public opinion, and that polls, many of which are funded by groups with specific agendas, breed leading questions or a biased framework, and ta-da! Of course you will get contradictory sets of data.
Clement is to be praised for his desire to see where these differences might come from. But perhaps there is little to explain that we don’t already know. This mixed bag is more reassuring than thought provoking.