Thursday, November 04, 2010

Much-Touted National Exit Poll Data on Deficits was Based on Bullshit Question

The polling has bopped around a bit here or there over the last year, but no matter how the pollsters ask the question -- and no matter how much deficit hyping there is in the press -- people rank the economy and jobs as higher concerns than the deficit. There was actually a new wave of polling on this just before the election, in fact, asking people for their top priorities:
  • USA Today / Gallup: "passing new stimulus bill" (38%), "cutting federal spending" (24%), "repealing health care law" (23%), "extending all income tax cuts (8%)
  • Reuters / Ipsos: 72% say jobs are "crucial" focus, 25% say they are "important"; 57% say the budget deficit is "crucial" focus, 38% say "important"
  • CNN / Opinion Research: "economy" (58%), "the federal budget deficit" (8%), "education" (8%), "health care" (8%), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (8%), "illegal immigration" (8%) -- and other topics get smaller amounts
  • Pew: "the job situation" (39%), "health care" (25%), "the deficit" (17%), and it drops off to 6% and below after that
But now in the past day and a half there's been some attention to a stunning outlier on the question, from the national exit polling data from Tuesday. The exit poll seems to say that 39% see the deficit as the top priority for the new Congress, while only 37% said spending to create jobs is most important.

It's gotten some attention. See, for example: Liz Sidoti of AP, Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan of the NYT, Kyle Dropp of the Washington Post, Gerald Seib of WSJ, Elizabeth Williamson of the WSJ,, Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily, Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour and John Dickerson of Slate.

But what did the exit poll actually ask? I mean, did public opinion on the importance of deficit vs. jobs and the economy really make a huge, historic shift in a matter of days?

The national exit polling asked two 'priorities' questions.

"Most Important Issue Facing Country Today" got:
Economy (62%)
Health Care (18%)
War in Afghanistan (8%)
Illegal Immigration (8%)
It appears those were the only options, which makes it not very useful.

Then there was the "Highest Priority for Next Congress" question, which got:
Reducing Deficit (39%)
Spending to Create Jobs (37%)
Cutting Taxes (19%)
This time, only three choices!

It seems the "Jobs" option was saddled with "spending to create." Yet "Reducing Deficit" was not saddled with "by increasing taxes to raise money" or "by cutting spending on government programs."

I see I'm not the first to note the questionable setup of this question. The WSJ's David Wessel explains: "One inelegantly phrased exit poll Tuesday found 45% favored tax cuts or spending increases to help the economy while 39% made reducing the deficit a higher priority (which, except to some economic alchemists, means tax increases and spending cuts.)"

Also, Ed Kilgore at TNR notes the "rather limited choice" presented in the question and Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic seems to be tweaking the setup a bit as well.

In sum, it's rather doubtful that a massive shift -- in under a week-- of public opinion occurred on the importance of the deficit. But that's what any news organization that hyped the national exit poll's 39% figure implicitly conveys.

These news organization should go back and look at the wording of the questions, do some hard thinking about how appropriate the setup was, and tell their audiences about the findings of the four polls in the week before the election that weren't saddled with a non-nonsensical option list.


Coda: in related deficit news --
  • Dean Baker catches the Washington Post misrepresenting its own poll.
  • Paul Krugman shows that the public has no idea how the deficit has changed over the years, so no matter how it changes in the future, voters will likely be voting based on wrong assumptions. I mean, if they care about the deficit at all.
UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention that I need to address a point about who was being surveyed in the national exit poll. It's a somewhat different subset, of course, than the overall population being sampled in the regular opinion polls. Given the 'enthusiasm gap' stats, this was clearly an electorate that was somewhat more conservative than the overall population. The exit poll data had voters reporting their party ID as: Democrat (36%), Republican (36%) and Independent (28%). For ideology, people reported Conservative (41%), Moderate (39%) and Liberal (20%). So it's indeed possible and likely the voters would have slightly different opinions on deficits than the general population pool. That doesn't change, of course, that the choices given in the exit poll questions were absurd, completely not parallel with what was asked in other polls.

Update 11/6: Thank you Andrew Gelman for the link.

Update 11/6: In a Washington Post forum in Sunday's paper, Scott Keeter, the Pew Research Center's director of survey research, writes: "And the deficit, while a key issue for Republicans, was the top priority for only 37 percent of voters in the exit poll." Oy, he doesn't get it.


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