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Friday, January 27, 2006
On Polling and Wiretaps
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 7:47 am

I find the entire attempt to use polls in any meaningful way in regards to the whole NSA wiretap story to be utterly useless. For one thing, there are some issues that are right or wrong, and as such I am not going to be swayed one way or another simply because its popular (or because it is not).

More significantly to this issue, perhaps, is that it isn’t the kind of thing that is amenable to polling in the first place. Two of the basic tenets of polling are 1) that polls are most useful when knowledge on the topic that is the subject of the poll is high, and 2) that to understand public opinion, the issue has to reduced to a series of simple questions that are as unambiguous as possible-the more complex the questions, the worse the information one is gatheringl.

Well, in regards to #1: since we don’t really know what the program is, it is rather hard to say that knowledge of the program is high in the population. Further, even what we do know about it is complex and is clearly affected by partisan orientation. Democrats are far more likely to believe that the President is acting improperly, and Republicans more likely to think the opposite. As such, how much of what is being captured in these polls is partisan sentiment, rather than views about the policy in question? It is difficult to know.

In regards to #2: it is rather difficult to ask unambiguous questions on this topic. Moreover, it is clear from watching this process for the last several weeks, the way the question is worded influences the response.

It is safe to say that people want to be safe, and they want the government to do their best to keep them safe. Further, it is also clear that if people think that only “bad” people are being watched, then that’s fine. It is also clear that people don’t want to be spied on themselves, and have qualms about the government getting too much power.

Of course, I could have told you all of that without shelling out cash for an expensive poll.

Here’s the latest attempt from the NYT: New Poll Finds Mixed Support for Wiretaps wherein we find, in the second paragraph (which I read after writing the above-it was the headline that sent me into the above flurry of words) the following confirmation of my thesis:

In a sign that public opinion about the trade-offs between national security and individual rights is nuanced and remains highly unresolved, responses to questions about the administration’s eavesdropping program varied significantly depending on how the questions were worded, underlining the importance of the effort by the White House this week to define the issue on its terms.


The poll found that 53 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Bush’s authorizing eavesdropping without prior court approval “in order to reduce the threat of terrorism”; 46 percent disapproved. When the question was asked stripped of any mention of terrorism, 46 percent of those respondents approved, and 50 percent said they disapproved.

The piece also notes that folks ain’t none too happy with Congress at the moment:

Investigations into Congressional corruption are taking a toll as the elections approach: 61 percent of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Congress, the highest in 10 years.


  1. […] of having to deal with Hamas will drive that number up or down. And btw: as this relates to my previous post-this poll has more validity than the eavesdropping polls I mentioned below, as info […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Speaking of Polls — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 8:36 am

  2. Polls are a crude attempt to read Americas’ brains. And on the wire-tapping, this is a non-issue unless both the caller and the recipient of the call are American citizens and both are on American soil. I have negative feelings otherwise.

    Comment by c.v. — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 10:14 am

  3. I agree, in that polls really are sidestepping the whole issue. The issue is whether or not Bush’s actions are constitutional.

    The best way to decide that issue is an independent tribunal of constitutional lawyers who are not affiliated with either party…I’m hopeful for that or some similar logical solution, but I shan’t hold my breath for that.

    Comment by jim — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 11:01 am

  4. It would be difficult to prove but it seems to me that polls are being worded to get the results desired. This practice would add to the polarization of the public dialog. My poll vs your poll becomes the discussion instead of more thoughtful dialog.

    Comment by Lindata — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 11:29 am

  5. Jim,


    Comment by Robert — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 11:32 am

  6. I agree, let’s take the issue to the Federal courts and see if the administration’s legal justification stands up. If not, we can change FISA so that the intelligence can be gathered legally. Without a ruling, it is just a political football, in which case polls are a legitimate tool to keep score.

    Comment by Ed — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

  7. The problem with legal action is proving you have leagal standing. The only way to have legal standing is to have been spied upon and since this is a classified program, it’s kind of hard to prove you’ve been wiretapped by the NSA. Really unfortunate.

    Comment by Joshua Smith — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 1:38 pm

  8. I agree that this is not a matter of polling. The president has an expansive view of his power, and the question is the legal question of the extent of his power.

    We know that this level of legal question has strong political overtones, a point recently made by Judge Posner. But there are legal standards for making the decision,and if there is someone with standing (a difficult problem), the Supreme Court is the place for a decision.

    Now, in the wake of Gore v. Bush, many of us think that politics at the Supreme Court will overwhelm the historical arrangement of powers among the three branches of government, and that Alito will lead the charge. But that is the only place where some sense of tradition may have sway, and where whatever is left of our form of government might possibly be upheld.

    Comment by masaccio — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 3:24 pm

  9. Public opinion polling is an entire industry built on smoke and mirrors. The fact that major news orgs pay for this kind of baloney is really disgusting.

    Comment by bryan — Friday, January 27, 2006 @ 10:23 pm

  10. This isn’t really a close call. FISA defines how this type of surveillance can be conducte, and the law wasn’t followed. The legislators who passed the authorization to attack al Queda have all said that authorization did not create a new right to spy without a warrant. It does NOT take a constitutional expert to sort it out.

    Comment by lindsey — Saturday, January 28, 2006 @ 9:45 am

  11. The question is not “do we spy on our enemies?”
    Of course we do.
    The question is, “who decides who those enemies are, and do they get to do so without any oversight or any checks and balances at all?”

    Comment by JDRhoades — Monday, January 30, 2006 @ 10:31 pm

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