Reading opinion polls

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at
Sat Jul 12 17:05:17 MDT 2003

This is a little bit technical, more meant for political/journalism
geeks, but at the end I have a series of political conclusions, the
bottom line of which is this: there is tremendous potential now for
building a movement against the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq. 

*  *  *

I posted earlier, without realizing detailed figures were available, the
lead on the Post's story on their poll. The detailed figures are even
more striking in revealing how the public is souring on Bush and his

The Post story references high up only the "net" figure for approval for
the President; not the *intensity* of that support. But that is captured
by their polling technique, and in looking at those detailed figures, we
see that those who "Strongly" approve of what Bush is doing have gone
from 58% (in April) to 35% (now) of those surveyed. That's a drop of
23%; in the last 2-1/2 weeks, that figure has gone from 45% to 35%.

You see a similar trend line in *disapproval* with those who *strongly*
disapprove of the job he is doing as president at an all-time high of
25%. The highest it had ever been, pre-September 11, was 22%, and in the
winter, during the antiwar protests it peaked at 23%, with overall
disapproval at 38%, same as today.

What we see is a lessening of the total support and of the intensity of
the support, and an increase in disapproval and the intensity of that

Thus the Washington Post could perfectly legitimately have led its story
"Little more than a third of Americans say they 'strongly' approve of
how President Bush is handling the presidency, compared to nearly six
out of ten three months ago."

Well, at any rate, the Post's report was pointed enough.

It should be kept in mind that U.S. public opinion polls are
systematically biased in several ways that *exaggerate* support for Bush
(or any other ruling class figure in his position). 

They are conducted by phone and in English only -- thus excluding from
the sampling a huge portion of the Latino population and precisely the
portion least identified with the U.S. government and its policies. The
polls are said to be of "adults" -- but institutionalized populations
are excluded, including the more than 1% of the adult population in

Those polled are a self-selected sample. Many people refuse to cooperate
with polls. It is a reasonable inference that among those refusing to
cooperate, people who are alienated from or radically opposed to the
U.S. political system are overrepresented. 

But more to the point is that the poll figures, percentages and
statistical analysis we are offered are a scientific fraud. As a mater
of policy, pollsters never tell us the REAL results of their phone
calls, which is something like that out of 1,500 or 2,000 phone calls
that reached someone, 1/3 or 1/2 refused to cooperate. To make valid
statements about percentages and probabilities, the *entire* sample
--all those talked to-- should be included.

(Pollsters claim that studies show those refusing to cooperate are
identical in every way to the rest of the population and thus there is
no systematic bias. Leaving aside the obvious question --how could they
possibly know that?-- the plain fact is that the REAL sample was much
larger than they claim, the percentages represent only that part of the
larger pool that *chose* to take part, a self-selected sample.)

In addition, the raw poll numbers are massaged using demographic
criteria. Answers are weighted to take into account whether they think
they talked to too many poor Blacks and too few white yuppies.
Pre-election horse-race polling is especially biased. It is based on
"likely" voters, an ideological construct that discounts the opinions of
Blacks, Hispanics, young people and the working class; and serves to
stigmatize those candidates that appeal especially to the most oppressed
and exploited as "fringe" and "unelectable" by refusing to include in
the poll results many or most of those who say they would support that

Also, and this is important, especially in the sort of political climate
that now exists in the United States, polls don't tell us how many
people approve or disapprove of the President. They tell us what people
were *willing to say* about that when called by complete strangers who
*claimed* to represent "news" organizations that clearly have turned
themselves into propaganda organs for the current regime.

But it is also important to remember that different layers of the
population have had different interactions with the U.S. governmental
system. An older Black who remembers people being lynched for trying to
vote, or a younger one who has many of his friends in prison, or an
immigrant who knows he could be deported and his family broken up with
one phone call, is going to react quite differently to assurances of
impartiality given by the pollster than Mrs. Cleaver from Leave it to

It is a safe assumption that Bush's supporters would all be willing to
proclaim themselves as such. But the evidence shows those willing to say
the opposite varies with the degree of jingoistic pressure and hysteria
in the country at a given point.

For example, in the wake of Sep. 11, only 3% were willing to say they
strongly disapproved of what Bush was doing, and 3% mildly disapproved.

Everyone knows this isn't true. LOTS of people didn't like it, not one
little bit. Just think, the population of the country is 25% Blacks,
Hispanics and other minorities. Assuming *every last white person* went
pro-Bush, do we *really* believe three out of four Blacks and Hispanics
ALSO were applauding Bush. What *is* true is that there was such a
witch-hunting climate afoot that only the very bravest or the most
foolhardy dared externalize that opinion.

You see a *similar* phenomenon with the April 30 poll numbers (see them
below), where suddenly there is a sharp shift from those "strongly"
disapproving to "somewhat" disapproving. This came in the midst of the
final orgy of triumphalist jingoism leading to Bush's over-the-top
fighter-jock photo op on the aircraft carrier. The jump in "somewhat"
disapproval shows that people weren't completely cowed, but they were

What a poll like this can tell us is NOT whether Bush has "majority"
approval; the poll has been constructed and conducted in such a way, and
the data massaged, falsified and fabricated to produce *precisely* that
result. But it DOES reveal *shifts* in public opinion and the political
climate, which may be very important to out practical work.

Below is part of the data set offered by the WAPO on their poll. To see
all of the data, go here:

. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his
job as president? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat? 

             ---------Approve---------   --------Disapprove-------    No
             NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Strongly   Somewhat
7/10/03      59       35         24      38       25         13        3
6/22/03      68       45         23      29       18         11        4
4/30/03      71       50         22      26        9         17        3
4/16/03      74       52         22      23       14          9        3
4/9/03       77       58         19      20       14          6        4
4/3/03       71       54         16      25       19          7        4

*  *  *

Some *political* conclusions:

A) Bush is weaker now, more vulnerable now, than at any time since
September 11. Even without large visible public protests, his numbers
are as bad as at any time in the winter during the huge antiwar

B) His "support" seems to be collapsing. His high numbers in the middle
of the invasion were the result of an absolutely extraordinary,
saturation campaign of jingoistic and triumphalist propaganda, a lot of
it centered on the idea that saying "I dislike Bush" was saying "I hope
they rape and kill my best friend's daughter who is over there." And in
the end that is likely to prove as self-defeating as it was temporary.
His "strong" supporters are quickly heading towards the 25-30% hard-core
bedrock right wingers among that portion of the U.S. population that the
polls encompass. 

C) This is NOT due to "the press" turning against him, but to the
inability of even this completely domesticated U.S. media to prevent at
least a little of the truth from coming out. (Some may think that *now*
the press will turn against him with a vengeance, like sharks smelling
blood in the water. The problem with this expectation is the idea that
these pampered goldfish that are put on display every evening during the
"news" can somehow turn into a different species. We'll see.)

D) (Although I don't dwell on this above) The Vietnam syndrome remains
alive and well. The idea that a couple of hundred dead is "too high" a
casualty figure for a war of this size and scope bears absolutely no
relation to military realities. You don't get so few casualties unless
the enemy cuts and runs, which is what Saddam and his generals basically
did *again* just as in the first Gulf War.

E) There is tremendous potential for a renewed movement against the U.S.
War in Iraq. Even with the current level of resistance (sporadic
hit-and-run firing of a few rounds, basically, harassment) U.S. losses
are more than what the people (and the soldiers) were promised. Unlike
the prewar movement, this one has the potential of linking up with
significant sentiment among the GI's and their families, neutralizing
demagogic appeals to "support our troops" by supporting the war.


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