Garbage In, Garbage Out
by
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With the approach of the 2020 presidential election season, much of the media is now promoting the most pessimistic spin possible on the findings of a recent — and methodologically questionable — NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

With headlines like “A deep and boiling anger” to portray Americans’ purported hostility toward the Trump administration, NBCNews.com draws upon polling data to describe an electorate in despair — seething with anger over President Trump — refusing to acknowledge the booming economy and lowest unemployment rates in decades.

The problem is that despite all the media hype that has accompanied this latest poll, the truth is that Americans are no more angry than they were four years ago. In fact, Republicans report feeling significantly less angry than they were four years ago, but Republican optimism has been minimized by the media in order to focus on the “boiling” anger of Democrats.

With regard to the economy, 69 percent of the 1,000 respondents to the survey say they are satisfied with their overall financial situation, and 57 percent of the respondents to the national survey claimed to be very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the state of the economy today. This is a dramatic increase over the 39 percent of respondents who were very satisfied or satisfied with the economy in June 2015 — the final year of the Obama presidency. But none of the negative Obama-era dissatisfaction data are included in any of the media reports of the “seething anger” of today’s electorate.

Media reports on the poll claim that it offers a “glum view of race relations,” and although it is true that 60 percent of the respondents claim that race relations in the United States are bad, that is a statistically significant improvement over the 70 percent who claimed in 2017 that race relations were bad in the United States, and it is significantly lower than the high of 74 percent in 2016 — the final year of the Obama presidency.

Media reports also have focused on the “declines in patriotism” apparent in the survey. And, although it is true that only about 40 percent of Democrats claim that patriotism is important, more than 80 percent of Republicans still believe that patriotism is very important — even higher than the overall 70 percent who claimed patriotism was important 20 years ago. Likewise, a perception of the importance of a belief in God has slipped — for Democrats. Only about 40 percent of Democrats claim that a belief in God is important, while about 70 percent of Republicans see that as important. Same with having children. While less than 40 percent of Democrats believe that having children is important, nearly 60 percent of Republicans believe this.

Beyond the pessimistic portrayal of the data, some of the survey questions themselves were methodologically suspect. They were leading questions that interjected the answer the survey designers wanted to hear into the question itself. In a series of leading questions that no undergraduate sociology student would be allowed to include in a project for their social research methods course, each of the 1,000 respondents to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll were asked to describe how well the following statements described how they felt about the direction of the country:

You feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than it working to help everyday people get ahead.

You feel anxious and uncertain because the economy still feels rocky and unpredictable so you worry about paying your bills, day to day living costs and whether you can count on your own situation being stable.

Not surprisingly, 70 percent of the respondents in the 2019 poll said that the statement about “insiders with money and power” described how they felt “very or somewhat well.” And, while these data have been reported widely to demonstrate that 70 percent of electorate believes that the Trump administration is “only working for the insiders with money and power,” none of the media sources that hyped the “boiling anger” of the electorate has reported that 69 percent of all respondents answered exactly the same way to the same leading question during the final year of the Obama administration in October 2015. Likewise, 56 percent of the respondents agreed that they felt anxious and uncertain because “the economy still feels rocky and unpredictable.” But few of the media sources bothered to mention that 61 percent of the respondents agreed that they felt anxious and uncertain about the economy during the final year of the Obama administration in 2015.

Leading questions like this result in biased or false responses because respondents are prone to simply agree with the words of survey designer. Worse, the leading questions can alter the respondent’s thoughts and answers for the remainder of the survey through contamination effects. Polling professionals know this. It is part of their strategy — it is what they do, and they do it to sway voters. The media has described the poll as bipartisan, and, to be fair, the polling professionals represented both political sides: Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates conducted the survey in partnership with the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. It is not surprising that a Democratic pollster would put a negative spin on the current presidential administration, but it seems that the Republican side may have had an issue with the Trump administration. Glen Bolger, a partner with the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, has been less than supportive of President Trump in the past. In the lead-up to the midterm elections in 2018, Bolger told a New York Times reporter, “People think the economy is doing well, but that’s not what they’re voting on — they’re voting on the chaos of the guy in the White House.”

This NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll must be viewed as a partisan poll because of the way the questions were asked and the way it has been portrayed in the media. It is time for real social science data to be used to truly understand the attitudes and behaviors of the electorate. Until unbiased research methods are used — with methodologically sophisticated data gathering and analysis techniques in place — we should ignore the hype that accompanies “studies” like this.

Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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