CNN and Gallup did inappropriate reporting of inappropriate poll question on inappropriate behavior

››› ››› PAUL WALDMAN

The Gallup Organization, which conducts polling for CNN and USA Today, among others, recently began polling on questions surrounding the Supreme Court vacancy. On the June 5 edition of CNN's Live From ..., Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport reported results of the following question:

"How likely do you think it is that Democrats in the Senate would attempt to block Bush's nominee for inappropriate political reasons?"

This sounds suspiciously like the kind of question you'd find in a partisan poll. In fact, it is a version of what pollsters call a "double-barreled" question, i.e., one that actually contains two questions. The first question would be whether the respondent believes Democrats are likely to attempt to block Bush's nominee, and the second would be whether, should they attempt to block a nominee, they will be doing so for inappropriate reasons. The problem is that a respondent who thought the Democrats will attempt to block the nominee, but that their reasons might be appropriate, might still be tempted to answer "yes."

This was the exchange between CNN anchor Tony Harris and Newport on the July 5 edition of CNN's Live From ...:

HARRIS: Frank, the compromise over judicial filibusters could actually fall apart if Democrats tried to block the Supreme Court nomination. Will the public be likely to support a Democratic-led filibuster?

NEWPORT: Well, you know, we don't know for sure. We do know earlier this year, Tony, that a lot of Americans were fed up. I think that's fair to say, based on my analysis of the data, with all the filibuster wrangling that was going on.

Question we've asked now is, do you think the Democrats will block a nomination filibuster for inappropriate reasons? That's the key word. Of course, predictably, about seven out of 10 Republicans said of course they will. But what's interesting to us is over half of Democrats say that their own leaders may inappropriately use the filibuster rule. So I would think leaders may be in trouble if there's a lot of filibustering going on.

But the question didn't ask whether it would be appropriate for Democrats to filibuster nominees they think are unqualified, so Newport's speculation about leaders being in trouble if there's "a lot of filibustering going on" is based on the assumption that any Democratic filibuster would be based on "inappropriate reasons."

Since Gallup is a nonpartisan polling organization, we can assume it was not attempting to craft questions to echo Republican spin. So why write such a question? The answer can be found on Gallup's website. In fact, this question was paired with another question asking, "How likely do you think it is that Bush would appoint someone to the U.S. Supreme Court who would let their religious beliefs inappropriately influence their legal decisions?" This question is not double-barreled in the same way as the first question -- that is, it can't be broken down into "how likely is the president to appoint a Supreme Court nominee" (presumably 100% likely) and "how likely is it that that nominee would let his or her religious beliefs inappropriately influence his or her legal decisions." But if, in fact, Gallup was attempting to gauge the effectiveness of each side's spin by asking questions that incorporated that spin -- an exercise with some value -- its reporting of the results, in the form of Newport's appearance on CNN, was highly skewed.

Posted In
Government, Nominations & Appointments, The Judiciary
Stories/Interests
Polling
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