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January 19, 2006

Polling on Impeachment - Part 1

At a town hall meeting in San Francisco on Monday, according to a report in the LA Times, Democratic Minority Leader. Nancy Pelosi had to shout "to be heard above the boos and catcalls" when she "rejected calls for President Bush's impeachment."  Last week, Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of Congress who served on the House Judiciary Committee when it took up articles of impeachment against President Nixon, authored a cover story in The Nation that makes a detailed case for Bush's impeachment of President Bush.  Near the end of her piece, Holtzman included this passage:

Organizations like AfterDowningStreet.org and ImpeachPac.org, actively working on a campaign for impeachment, are able to draw on a remarkably solid base of public support. A Zogby poll taken in November--before the wiretap scandal--showed more than 50 percent of those questioned favored impeachment of President Bush if he lied about the war in Iraq [emphasis added]. 

Daunting though it may be, MP hopes to avoid the debate about the merits of impeaching Bush to focus narrowly on what polls can tell us about the "base of support" for impeachment.  This issue actually raises a number of questions appropriate for this forum:  What is the best way to ask about attitudes regarding impeachment?  What standards should "mainstream" media pollsters use to determine what questions to include in their polls?  Just how many Americans really want to impeach Bush?   How do attitudes about impeachment and Bush now compare to attitudes about impeachment and Bill Clinton in 1998?

I will not try to address all of these questions in one post (though I hope to come back to this thread a few times over the next week or so).  Today I want to start by looking closely at the polling question that Holtzman cited, first asked by pollster John Zogby.  While it does indicate considerable discontent with the President, I believe it falls short as measure of the "base of support" for impeachment.

Here's the background.  Back in June 2005, pollster John Zogby included the following question on a national survey of "likely voters"

Do you agree or disagree that if President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment?

The Zogby survey found that 42% agreed and 55% disagreed.  He discussed the results on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" on MSNBC and a few days later the "Politics" column in the Sunday Washington Post picked up the results.  A subsequent blog item by the Post's Dan Froomkin wondered why "only three mainstream outlets" had made "even cursory mention" of the result. 

Several web sites - particularly the sites AfterDowningStreet.org and Democrats.com (an independent group not to be confused with the official Democratic Party site, Democrats.org) - started an ongoing campaign to bombard various media pollsters, reporters and editors with emails "demanding more polls on impeachment" (yet another topic for a future post). In September, the site AfterDowningStreet.org set about raising money to run their own questions on various "omnibus" polls.   They placed the Zogby impeachment question on a poll by IPSOS public affairs in early October (changing only the words "though impeachment" to "by impeaching him").  They also paid Zogby to track his original question again on a survey in early November.  The results were essentially consistent:  On the Ipsos survey, 50% agreed and 44% disagreed.  On the Zogby update in October, 53% agreed and 42% disagreed.

Just last week, AfterDowningStreet commissioned yet another question on a Zogby poll, this one focused on the NSA wiretap controversy:

If President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge, do you agree or disagree that Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.

The results were consistent with the previous versions of the Zogby impeachment question.  52% agreed, 43% disagree and 6% were not sure or declined to answer. 

Now I'll cut to the chase.  I am not a fan of the Zogby impeachment questions, largely because they tells us very little about what Americans think right now about the merits of impeaching President Bush or removing him from office.  I am also dubious about their value in projecting how Americans might react if the issue were widely debated. 

My skepticism is rooted in the complex nature of the impeachment process.  As we all should have learned in High School civics, impeachment is a process of bringing charges analogous to a criminal indictment that is initiated in the House of Representatives.  Once a president is "impeached," a trial is held in the Senate.  If a two-thirds majority of Senators votes to convict, the process removes the President from office.

The details of this process are hazy for many Americans.  Late in 1998, as the House was about to vote on whether to impeach President Clinton, CBS News twice asked Americans about the meaning of the term impeachment:

As far as you know, if the full US House of Representatives eventually votes to impeach President Clinton, does that automatically mean that President Clinton will be removed from office, or not?

In October 1998 (on a poll conducted jointly with the New York Times), only 46% offered the correct "no" "yes" answer, while more than half either said yes (33%) or were unsure.  Two months later on the eve of the impeachment vote CBS obtained roughly the same result - 54% said no, 30% yes and 16% unsure.

Given this confusion, a pollster should not just throw out the term "impeachment" and assume that all respondents understand.  Rather the pollster should word the question to provide clear meaning of the term so that it is easy to understand and interpret, both for the respondents and those of us who use the data.  Unfortunately, rather than clarifying the meaning of "impeachment," the Zogby question makes it even more vague: "Should Congress consider holding him accountable through impeachment?" 

What does that mean?  Is the question asking whether Congress should remove Bush from office, begin the process of removing him from office or just "consider" doing so?   Do respondents hear this as a question about the formal process of impeachment or just about "holding him accountable?" If the meaning of the question is unclear to us, it was certainly unclear to the respondents.  So how do we interpret the results? 

Yes, the results do indicate considerable discontent with the president and, as John Zogby himself put it, "just how badly divided this country is over the war."  However, we have many other poll measures on that score.  The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll, for example, found that 39% strongly disapprove of Bush's performance and 43% strongly believe the Iraq War was not worth fighting.  Recent polls by CBS, Time Magazine and Fox News put the number of Americans who believe intentionally or deliberately "misled" the country in making the case for war at somewhere between 44% and 52%.   But discontent is not the same as favoring impeachment or an early removal from office.  If the Zogby question cannot help us distinguish between the two, it is not very useful.

Consider the result of another impeachment question paid for by AfterDowingStreet.org and placed on an automated poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports in October.  To the credit of Rasmussen and the sponsors, this question was much more clear and direct:  "Should President Bush be impeached and removed from office?"  Nearly a third (32%) said yes, 56% no and 12% were not sure.

So how does that 32% result compare to similar questions asked about previous Presidents.  And what about the "if" clause in the Zogby question ("if President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq")?  Does that give it value in projecting what public opinion might be in the future?  I'll take up those questions in subsequent posts. 

Related Entries - Impeachment, Polls in the News, President Bush

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on January 19, 2006 at 07:43 AM in Impeachment, Polls in the News, President Bush | Permalink

Comments

You need to edit this sentence:

"In October 1998 (on a poll conducted jointly with the New York Times), only 46% offered the correct "yes" answer, while more than half either said yes (33%) or were unsure."

Posted by: &y | Jan 19, 2006 10:10:33 AM

There is another flaw in the Zogby Iraq question...

"...if President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq..."

...it elides two radically different accusations: 1) saying inaccurate things; 2) telling intentional lies.

Even the President concedes that his references about weapons of mass destruction turned out to lack veracity. His explanation is that he made an honest mistake.

The President's opponents have chosen an ambiguous criticism too: "he misled us into war" which uses a pun to accuse him of two different flaws--either poor leadership or deceptive speech.

Deliberately lying in order to start a war, especially in a Constitutionally-mandated presentation such as a State of the Union speech, would plausibly qualify as a high crime and misdemanor.

Honestly believing propositions that turned out to be false, and making errors of judgment in war leadership as a result, would certainly be unfortunate, even incompetent, but not, it seems, impeachable.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall | Jan 19, 2006 11:20:52 AM

I think the questions also pose a problem on just measuring support for this sort of thing. You have to distinguish between the hypothetical question, the facts as perceived by the respondant and the usual answer bias for questions that aren't really being considered.

If you asked the question, "Would you support the removal of the president from office if he had been shown to lie?" would likely get very different results if you asked this question totally as a hypothetical or concerning FDR's statement that the Doolittle raid was launched from Shangrala, Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Bush's statements on WMD leading up to the Iraq war.

Framing the question could thus have a huge impact on how it would be answered. Further, given the looseness in the question, it would seem that some testing questions would make sense. For example, "Do you think that Bush told the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, even if the basis for some of the reasons later proved to be false?" If 80% said yes, then the impeachment question loses a great deal of its steam. If 80% said no, then the impeachment question becomes even more interesting since a sizeable portion would have considered and rejected the claim.

I have a similar issue with the Rassmussen presidential tracking poll.
Based on the subject, I can say that I simultaniously strongly apprve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove and strongly disapprove of the job Bush is doing. Are we talking about the war on terror, Iraq, immigration or medicare plan D. Unless you have an event like an election to focus those questions on (or in the case here, actual impeachment proceedings), people can and will carry conflicting feelings/opinions about an issue.

Posted by: yetanotherjohn | Jan 20, 2006 2:26:22 PM

Pardon my gross speculation, but it appears to me that the original squishy wording gave a lot more room for the "Maybe" crowd to join in--in that latter Rassmussen poll, 32% yes + 12% maybe = 44% soft support, which starts to get us back into Ipsos (50% agree) poll question territory, and with nary a mention of Iraq.

Posted by: Pb | Jan 20, 2006 10:18:52 PM

My opinion is that we cannot run this country on polls, nor should thinking Americans allow pollsters to sway their point of view. Problem is that there are too many unthinking Americans.

Find/look at the facts, factor in which side lies the most and make decisions without using the polls for your answers.

Unless you enjoy being deceived...

Posted by: prying1 | Jan 22, 2006 2:38:59 AM

It seems to me that the word "consider" is thrown into the poll intentionally to goose up the number of yes responses. When you ask somebody whether X should be considered, most people will say yes. When you ask if X should be done, you are far more likely to get disagreement.

Posted by: Brainster | Jan 23, 2006 4:19:43 PM

I'm not saying the Zogby question is flawless, or even the best possible. But it's a decent, defensible question, IMHO, and the facts presented actually validate its results--about 10% more support for impeachment than for impeachment & removal--at least if we take the Clinton impeachment as a benchmark.

Last June, Bob Fertik posted on Democrats.com (http://democrats.com/clinton-impeachment-polls) that:

Phase I: Aug-Sept 1998 (Before Impeachment)

*
Average support for impeachment and removal (10 polls): 26%
*
Average support for hearings (6 polls): 36%.

Posted by: Paul Rosenberg | Jan 23, 2006 10:17:30 PM

Hey, what do you know, Bowers himself agrees with my take on what the polling question should have been:

'In retrospect, we probably should have just gone with a much more straight up question: "Would you support impeaching George W. Bush and removing him from office?"'

Posted by: Brainster | Feb 6, 2006 2:39:18 PM

It should by now (March 3, 2005) be obvious to all Americans, whatever their political persuasion, that we are being led--not misled--by an arch-criminal. Next to this second Bush to hold the Presidency of America, Richard Nixon is beginning to come across as a saint. How many lies did Nixon tell? When it seems that not a day goes by without President Bush telling us another fat juicy one--whether about WMDs, or "Iraq's on the right track (as the death toll over there, ours and theirs, rises relentlessly and stateside recruiting is dropping like a stone off a cliff)" or "I didn't know that Hurricane Katrina would decimate New Orleans the way that it did" with now a videotape showing that yes indeed, out of his own mouth it comes that before Katrina made landfall, he said exactly that, or--whatever the heck he's said today if anything, today's Saturday and he's probably keeping his mouth shut for a change--America's in a really bad place if we can not only impeach, but try this monster and his co-conspirators: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and whoever else I might have failed to name which orchestrated this ongoing disaster--(NOT simply quagmire,but just plain disaster)--in Iraq.

Posted by: Val Fitzgerald | Mar 4, 2006 9:19:29 PM

If it is such a pressing issue, the only way to measure the voters' perspective is with a referendum for impeachment.

If America is a democracy, the voters must have the right to recall their rulers when they overstep the highest constitutional and international laws.

Posted by: Racko | Mar 1, 2007 9:25:09 PM

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