In the wake of the failed gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate, Democrats are pissed. And as I pointed out previously, the reason is that none of them actually bothered to read the bill. All they saw was “universal background checks” and that sounded good to them and satisfied their desire to “do something.” So it makes sense that a Democratic-backed polling organization would be jumping for joy to see that Senators who voted against the background check proposal appear to have their popularity numbers dropping. But are they really?
Public Policy Polling would have you think so, as their latest press release gleefully details. But when you dig into the way the poll was conducted, the reality is that this is another variation on the theme of preying on low information voters to get the result you want.
Let’s take Arizona’s poll questions for example. The first question is a standard approval poll, and the question is rather innocuous. But after that, it all goes down hill.
Would you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun sales, including gun shows and the internet?
Heck, I would say yes to that question. But as we all know, the devil is in the details, and that’s the reason I cheered as the Senate killed the Machin / Toomey proposal. This question doesn’t ask if the voters supported that SPECIFIC proposal, but instead if they support the idea in general. Which is a far cry from the politicians claiming that 90% of the country wanted to see the current proposed legislation pass.
Does Jeff Flake’s vote against requiring background checks make you more or less likely to support him for re-election, or does it not make a difference?
This question is worded so poorly that it would have the voter think that Jeff Flake voted to eliminate all background checks, not just that he opposed the universal background check legislation. It plants that idea in the caller’s heads, which makes this question a referendum on background checks instead of how Senator Flake specifically acted in this situation. It’s a poorly worded question asked in the wrong sequence that produced very questionable results.
The way to ask this kind of question is, right after the popularity question, to ask people an open ended question like “what most influenced your decision about Senator Flake?” Then you get people’s actual reasons for liking him or not liking him.
Asking about background checks first sets people in that mindset of gun control and colors the following responses, which were so poorly worded that anyone who wasn’t paying close attention to the legislation might think was a proposal to remove all background checks. It leads the survey participants to the answer the polling company wants.
And that’s what throws the results of this survey completely in the gutter. The challenge in polling isn’t crunching the numbers, but instead trying to phrase questions and pace them in such a way that you get usable results. And in this case, it looks like Public Policy Polling was more interested in getting the results it wanted to support its pre-determined conclusion than actually taking the temperature of the country.