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Posts Tagged ‘public opinion’

Here are a few facts about what surveyed Americans claim to be facts: In a late 2017 poll, one in five survey respondents claimed that Donald Trump received more popular votes than did Hillary Clinton; about two in five said that the unemployment rate had risen during the Obama years; and about one in three told another poll that Obama was born in Kenya. All wrong. Of course, there is a huge political split on such topics. For example, about one-half of Republicans versus one-seventh of Democrats said that we’ve had a Kenyan president.telegram

There are partisan splits on a range of facts. In 2016, 79 percent of liberal democrats versus 15 percent of conservative Republicans said that they agreed that “Earth is warming mostly due to human activities.” Not all the misperceptions are on the Republican side. It is well known that many Americans sharply flip their reports about how the economy is doing or even about how their own finances are doing when the White House changes party control (e.g., here and here). Both political sides have tended to report crime as rising when it was actually falling.

How should we understand the detachment from reality that so many Americans seem to display when asked questions about facts? What does it say about polls and their value? One thing it says is that many people use polls to send a message.

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Now that economic inequality has become a focus of attention – mentions of “income inequality” in the New York Times went up five-fold in the 2010s compared to the 2000s, 200-fold compared to the 1990s – we know a few things about it clearly. For example: American inequality is unusually great among western societies; it has been growing substantially in recent decades; most recently, the gaps have widened especially between the very richest and the rest; and a good deal of inequality is subject to policy decisions (although some folks have been making that point for decades).

One thing that remains quite unclear is how average Americans think about inequality. Do they know about it, care about it, understand it, want to do anything about it?

In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. She disentangles the way Americans have answered a wide variety of survey questions on the topic over the last quarter-century or so, looking for the thread of logic that makes Americans’ knotted-up answers to all those questions coherent. In the end, she concludes that Americans are indeed aware, are concerned, and want action – and in a notably American way.

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The Survey Crisis

At this time in the presidential election cycle, we are inundated by surveys, almost moment-by-moment, battleground state by battleground state. But surveys are far more important than just serving to handicap elections. It is through scientific surveys – that is, asking standardized questions of representative samples of the population – that researchers and policymakers in the last 70 or so years have been able to get an accurate sense of Americans’ lives and opinions. It is how we know, for example, who is having trouble making ends meet, or people’s views about big policy issues.

(There are many survey cynics out there, I know. But, well-done surveys are roughly accurate – and roughly accurate is better than other ways of figuring out what is going on, like extrapolating from one’s friends’ experiences and opinions.)

Telephone Interviewers (source)

For the last several years, however, survey researchers have faced escalating challenges, in particular, the problem of getting Americans to answer their phone calls. (See this excellent National Journal article.) High-quality, face-to-face surveys are still done, but the costs have shot through the roof. Only the government and well-funded academic projects can afford them. The more common way of doing surveys – say, the way Gallup or Pew does them – is by telephone. And that has become difficult. I know one small survey business that closed from general dispirit.

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