Polling Complex Questions in America

In a story about Terri Shiavo case, James Joyner touches upon an interesting point:

While we can quibble with the wording of the questions, the polling seems to indicate an overwhelming consensus that the courts have done the right thing and that the GOP leadership was wrong to intervene in a matter for state courts.

The “quibble with the wording of the questions” part is a reference to a push poll done by ABC. But that’s not my point.

I think there is an inverse correlation between the complexity of an issue and how well it polls in America.

There is probably no better example than the “Contract With America” era.

The Contract consisted of 10 things the Republicans promised to do if they were given control of Congress. This 10 ideas were wildly popular with the public. They were things like making Congress obey the laws it passed for the rest of us and other common sense ideas. (I listed all 10 in the extended area)

But in the age before the blogosphere could slap the media for poor reporting, the media muddied the waters after the Republicans were given control of Congress. They targeted “The Contract” as a big Republican plan to take over the world while simultaneously not reporting (or misreporting) what was in it. As a result a weird paradox grew in the polling numbers.

“The Contract” had horrible polling numbers. About 25% of the people in the country supported it. BUT if people were polled on each point in the contract, lowest polling item on the list polled in the 80% range. The points of the contract each enjoyed wide support. But the bundle did not.

Also buried in the poll findings back then (before the blogosphere) was that the MORE people knew about the contract, the more they supported it. The people who admitted they did not know a single item in the contract were against it 9 to 1. So the ignorant skewed the poll dramatically.

Fast Forward to today. Private accounts for Social Security make sense. When people are asked if the money they put into Social Security should be held in a separate account with their name on it, they agree by a wide margin. But asked if they want the President’s Social Security reform which includes private accounts and they often say no. — Now let me make a point– I refuse to believe the American public is so knowledgeable about the present plan that they are sophisticated enough to agree with privatization in principal but disagree with this implementation. The inverse is true… They like the whole privatization thing but they don’t trust “them folks in Washington” not to screw up the present system. Everyone has heard the line about the devil we do know.

Which brings be to the Terri Shiavo case. It practically defines a complex story. Legal, moral, medical… all the big complexities in life all rolled into one case. People don’t want Terri Shiavo to starve to death. People don’t care what politicians gets involved…. The truth is, people don’t want to think about it. They want it off the front page – post haste.

Just look at the response in the blogosphere. Look at the number of bloggers (myself included) who ignored the case for a long time… Most of us just didn’t want to think about it. I would bet that less than 30% of the people in the country know that the whole case was decided (mostly) by a single judge. They don’t know the complexities of the case, they just want it to go away.

This is hard for us to comprehend because as my buddy Spoons points out, we (bloggers and our readers) have a near irrational obsession with news and politics. But never forget one important thing when you see all these polls about complex issues of the day…

At any given moment, only about 50% of the American public can even name the current Vice President… but the media will give you his approval numbers like they actually mean something.

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Broad points of the Contract With America

On the first day of the 104th Congress, the new Republican majority will immediately pass the following major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government:

FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;
SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;
THIRD, cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third;
FOURTH, limit the terms of all committee chairs;
FIFTH, ban the casting of proxy votes in committee;
SIXTH, require committee meetings to be open to the public;
SEVENTH, require a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase;
EIGHTH, guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget by implementing zero base-line budgeting.

Thereafter, within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, we shall bring to the House Floor the following bills, each to be given full and open debate, each to be given a clear and fair vote and each to be immediately available this day for public inspection and scrutiny.

1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses. (Bill Text) (Description)

2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in- sentencing, “good faith” exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s “crime” bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools. (Bill Text) (Description)

3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility. (Bill Text) (Description)

4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society. (Bill Text) (Description)

5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: A S500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle class tax relief. (Bill Text) (Description)

6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world. (Bill Text) (Description)

7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years. (Bill Text) (Description)

8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages. (Bill Text) (Description)

9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: “Loser pays” laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation. (Bill Text) (Description)

10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators. (Description)

The unkindest cut
Wizbang goes to the birds

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