Saturday, October 13, 2012

Your winnings, ma'am

Pity the poor misunderstood poll. It's somehow become all the rage to claim that any piece of quantitative research whose results you happen to dislike is flawed by dishonest -- specifically, partisan -- methodology.  Now comes yet another attack on the craft of survey research, worth noting not because of its substance but because of the pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain hilarity of its complaints.

Here's Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin,* who's shocked! shocked! to find that a polling agency is, you know ... asking questions about public opinion:

Exclusive: PPP caught doing advocacy polling on race**

PPP, a Democratic polling outfit, has long been viewed by suspicion by not only conservatives but by independent, credible pollsters. Now there is all the more reason to discount its “polling” as shoddy partisanship.

There follows a pretty long paragraph recounting a phone call with a Wisconsin resident who was perturbed at a telephone survey that had asked whether he thought "conservative media want white people to think Barack Obama hates them." (I know, it has kind of a self-evident ring to it, but social science is all about testing the link between hunches and reality.) So the blogger called the agency and got it to confess:

I asked whether this wasn’t a classic advocacy poll designed to get a specific answer. He demurred, “Well, we were asking a series of questions about conservative media.” He said that this call followed the posting on Drudge of the 2007 video in which then-Sen. Barack Obama (D- Ill.) talks about Hurricane Katrina and denying aid to residents. He claimed that since conservative media were trying to make an issue of this (in fact most conservative outlets downplayed or ignored the issue), it was important to see whether that effort (to poison the thinking of white voters, I suppose) was “successful.”

For a writer whose remit includes an "exacting" look at "conservative policy-making and Republican campaigns, pundits and politicians," that's either astoundingly careless or -- um, you make the call.*** The earth-shattering release of the 2007 video on Oct. 2 was the lead story at that night and through the following morning (above right). The coverage at Glenn Beck's The Blaze site includes some screenshots of the Drudge Report ("Obama's Other Race Speech") and a fairly detailed account of the Hannity program with  Tucker Carlson, whose Daily Caller broke the "exclusive" story of the five-year-old speech. The Washington Times checked in as well. It's hard to imagine the sampling method that could have led to a conclusion that the right-wing media "downplayed or ignored" the issue. But onward!

Wasn’t a question that put the conclusion in the question a leading question? “No, it wasn’t a leading question,” Jensen insisted. ... But of course the question is one that imparts the information to the voter in the most slanted way possible. There are no questions about liberal media or bias. To ask the question is to assume that conservative media are up to make white people fear Obama.

That's horrible! You'd think -- oh, you'd think somebody had been listening to Rush Limbaugh the day after the exclusive broke:

And we got the trumped up black accent like down in Selma.  ...  But it wasn't just the shuckin' and jivin' that was a bit offensive.  He was race-baiting.  He was race-baiting and fearmongering.


Imagine that.

But there's a bigger point here, of course, which is the chance to roast a pollster caught trying to sell the country down the river to colored Muslim communists influence public opinion rather than reflecting it:

Every independent or Republican pollster I asked was shocked by the poll question, though many declined to talk on the record about the work of a competitor.

One Republican pollster told me that this was proof — “if any reminder is needed” — that PPP is a partisan outfit. ... An independent pollster not associated with any candidate or party said this was typical of “low rent” polling and he would not put any credibility in such polls.

There's no such thing as a universal code of ethics, but one fairly standard element of a sourcing policy is that you don't get to use anonymity to slag a competitor. Some of the Post's opinion writers already have their own sets of facts; I'd be careful about letting them have their own rules for practice as well.

Again, though, the point of the column is survey practice, not news practice: Those pesky liberals are asking loaded questions in surveys, and that's just another nail in the coffin of media trust. Makes you wonder what survey questions look like when they're asked on behalf of a news organization with a real sense of fairness and balance, doesn't it?

Regardless of how you might vote, which candidate do you think relies more on a teleprompter?

When it comes to world events, in general do you think the United States should take the lead or wait and react to events?

Thinking about world events, which candidate do you think would be more likely to have the U.S. take the lead instead of waiting to react?

What do you think is the first thing the president of the United States should do if an American says something that offends radical Muslims?

Do you think national news organizations spend more time: [ROTATE 1-2] Defending Barack Obama and attacking Mitt Romney (2) Defending Mitt Romney and attacking Barack Obama?

In a change from 2008, the Democratic Party omitted references to “God” in its 2012 convention platform. The party then reversed itself and amended the platform to once again include wording referencing God -- do you think the Democratic Party platform should -- or should not -- reference God?

Please tell me if you agree or disagree with the following statements. (ROTATE NEXT TWO QUESTIONS)
46. Mitt Romney wants his presidential campaign to be all about the economy.
47. Barack Obama wants his re-election campaign to be about anything but the economy.

The house might let you win at roulette, in other words, but that doesn't mean you're qualified to call in the gendarmes on a bogus claim of card-stacking. If Jennifer Rubin is bothered by attempts to quantify how people respond to the sort of race-baiting demagoguery found in the 2012 campaign, maybe she shouldn't hang around with race-baiting demagogues.

* Added to the staff in 2010 because the Post apparently wasn't deep enough at Right-Wing Commentators With Tenuous Grips on Reality.
** Free tip for all you junior-league players out there: Many value judgments are "exclusive." Generally, save that label for "news" or other developments from the evidence-based world.

*** The writer might also want to talk to Dr. Krauthammer about those first-person-singular pronouns.  


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