Media cited flawed poll to suggest Americans think Democratic criticism of Bush's Iraq policy hurts troop morale

››› ››› JOE BROWN

A November 27 Washington Post article uncritically reported data from a flawed poll, concluding that the majority of Americans are "sympathetic" to "Vice President [Dick] Cheney's suggestion that criticism of the administration's [Iraq] war policies was itself becoming a hindrance to the war effort." In a poll released November 21 by RT Strategies, a polling firm founded by Democratic pollster Thomas Riehle and Republican pollster Lance Tarrance, the firm reported that 70 percent of Americans believe that Democratic senators' criticism of President Bush's Iraq war policy hurts U.S. troop morale in Iraq, while 13 percent believe it helps morale. But as the Daily Kos weblog first pointed out, the poll does not allow for the possibility that criticism of Bush's Iraq policy has no effect on troop morale. Moreover, it does not address the fact that 57 percent of Americans now believe the president misled the public when he made the case for war in Iraq, according to a November 4-7 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. This belief could also have a substantial effect on troop morale, an issue the RT pollsters completely ignored. The Post article and other media reports of the poll's results did not acknowledge these significant flaws in the RT poll.

RT's poll asked respondents: "Thinking about the war in Iraq, when Democratic Senators criticize the President's policy on the war in Iraq, do you believe it HELPS the morale of our troops in Iraq or HURTS the morale of our troops in Iraq?" Respondents could answer that such criticism "[h]urts morale a lot," "[h]urts morale some," "[h]elps morale some," or "[h]elps morale a lot." Although the poll recorded the responses of those who refused to answer or said they were unsure, respondents were not offered any option other than that the criticism helps or hurts morale. In any forced-choice poll question, most respondents are reluctant to offer an answer other than the options given. Furthermore, in many instances, interviewers are instructed only to accept answers that can be placed in one of the defined responses, or listed as "don't know" or "not sure." The fact that the survey reports only a category called "not sure/refused" -- and the fact that the sum of this figure, combined with the "helps" and "hurts" totals, constitutes 100 percent of the responses -- suggests that these were the instructions the interviewers received.

Such instructions would have made it difficult for a respondent to answer that Democratic criticism neither helps nor hurts troop morale. Limited to a choice between "helps" and "hurts," most respondents answered that such criticism hurts troop morale "some" or "a lot" -- even 52 percent of Democrats surveyed. An additional 17 percent of respondents are listed as having answered "[n]ot sure" or refusing to answer the question at all.

Following the poll's release, numerous media outlets referenced its flawed conclusions. In addition to the November 27 Post article, a Media Matters for America review found that the poll results were reported by the following media figures:

  • Washington Post staff writer Chris Cillizza, in a November 23 post on The Fix, his politics blog
  • Fox News host Sean Hannity, on the November 25 broadcast of ABC Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show
  • Scripps Howard News Service's Dan K. Thomasson, in a November 28 column
  • Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, on the November 28 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume
  • Nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, on the November 29 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show
  • Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, on the November 29 edition of Fox News' The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly

Additionally, portions of the November 27 Post article were reprinted November 28 by these newspapers:

  • The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun Sentinel
  • The St. Petersburg, Florida, Times
  • The San Jose, California, Mercury News
  • The Akron, Ohio, Beacon Journal

Also, Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto quoted from the Post article in his November 28 "Best of the Web Today" column, as Limbaugh did on the November 28 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show.

On November 28, The Kansas City Star printed an edited version of the November 27 Post article.

On his November 25 radio show, Hannity quoted the poll results for registered voters (available here), although other coverage of the poll quoted the statistics for all respondents. Hannity also referred to the poll as a "Cook poll." The Cook Political Report conducts some polls jointly with RT Strategies.

From the November 25 broadcast of ABC Radio Network's The Sean Hannity Show:

HANNITY: As we start the program today, 68 percent of respondents in the Cook poll say that the Democrats' criticisms of the president's policies in Iraq are hurting troop morale. Only 14 percent say it helps. In other words, the Democrats that voted for the war, that said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical, and nuclear -- now that they're out there politicizing the war, 68 percent of respondents say yes, it's hurting troop morale. Well, imagine if you were a soldier in harm's way, how you'd feel.

From the November 28 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, which also featured host Brit Hume, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke, and National Public Radio national political correspondent Mara Liasson:

LIASSON: Even if the president is not going to come out and do the kind of mea culpa that some Democrats and Mort would like him to do, I tell you what he is doing, he is responding to criticism over and over again. When [Sen.] Joe Biden [D-DE] comes in with an op-ed piece, he comes out the next day. And the White House says, hey, we agree -- Joe Biden agrees with us. You know, we're on board with Joe Biden. That's an unusual message from this White House.

HUME: But the Democrats continue to attack.

BARNES: But there was a very interesting poll by a bipartisan polling firm that found that 70 percent of Americans think -- agree that -- with what Dick Cheney said that the Democratic criticism hurts the morale of the troops.

From the November 29 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: But the bottom line to all this, folks, is that they are losing. They have this poll that we cited yesterday that was in Sunday's Washington Post. Their big effort about prewar intelligence is backfiring, 70 percent of the American people, 55 percent of Democrats think that it's nothing but a political ploy, and they think that it is demoralizing to the troops to constantly criticize the effort. The public views it as a political ploy that hurts the troops. It's backfiring on these people. I have maintained, I don't know how long, when you people have been up and down and sort of in the dumps about this, I have maintained that all of this behavior is going to backfire on them.


LIMBAUGH: But I'm just telling you, folks, this stuff doesn't have any sticking power or staying power, in terms of the Democrats. It's because it's just more negativism. And I guarantee you that poll on Sunday in The Washington Post, they are turning people off with all of this, and they have been for the longest time. It's no more than another Wellstone memorial, and you know how that went for them.

From the November 29 edition of Fox News' The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:

O'REILLY: Here's a poll that's very interesting. RT Strategies asked, "When Democratic senators criticize the president's policy on the war in Iraq, do you believe it helps the morale of our troops or hurts the morale of our troops?" Kind of a dopey question. Hurts morale a lot, 44 percent of Americans. Hurts morale some, 26. So there you have 70 percent of Americans feel that criticism of the Iraq war hurts the morale of the troops. And only 13 percent thinks it helps the morale. And they're morons because they don't know anything. I get a lot of email from soldiers, and a lot of them say, you know, when we hear this defeatist stuff, it hurts us because we're putting our lives on the line, and we want Americans to appreciate it. So I think the poll is accurate.

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