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May 12, 2006

ABC/WaPo on NSA Phone Records

Did yesterday's USAToday story on the collection of domestic telephone records by the NSA do President George Bush a backhanded favor?  An overnight survey released earlier this morning by ABC News and the Washington Post suggests that it may be doing just that.  Here's the lead from the Post's Richard Morin:

A majority of Americans initially support a controversial National Security Agency program to collect information on telephone calls made in the United States in an effort to identify and investigate potential terrorist threats, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it. A slightly larger majority--66 percent--said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.

Complete results and the text of the questions are available in this PDF file also released this morning by ABC News. 

Yes, this survey involves a relatively small sample size (502 adults) with a slightly larger margin of error than other national polls (+/- 4.5%).  And yes, calling was completed in a single evening, a practice would have missed those not at home last night and possibly overrepresented those watching the news on television last night.   However, the findings are generally consistent with previous polling on the NSA domestic eavesdropping. It is also worth remembering that the brief upward movement in President Bush's job approval rating coincided with the disclosure of the stories on NSA wiretaps in January.

MP makes no predictions, but Bush can only stand to gain if the public's attention shifts from his handling of gas prices, the economy, immigration and Iraq to his administration's efforts to "investigate terrorism."  The Post-ABC poll found that 51% approve (and 47% disapprove) of "the way Bush is handling Protecting Americans' privacy rights as the government investigates terrorism."  That is "hardly a robust rating," as the ABC release puts it, "but one that's far better than his overall job approval, in the low 30s in recent polls."

UPDATE:  Reader DRM posts a comment below worth considering:   

I'm disappointed you didn't discuss my belief that the results of a telephone survey about privacy and electronic monitoring are likely invalid by definition. A person who places a low value on their personal privacy seems to be much more likely to speak on the telephone and answer personal and potentially controversial questions than a person who places a high value on personal privacy. I'm not sure you could pick a question for a phone survey that would have a significantly greater skewing effect than the Post/ABC question.

I'm not sure questions about privacy are "invalid by definition," but DRM makes a fair point about the potential for non-response bias on a question like this.  In other words, those who refuse the survey may have different opinions on these issue than those who participate.

It certainly makes intuitive sense that those who refuse interview requests are more likely to value their privacy, and thus be more likely to take the privacy-protection side of this debate.  But ultimately the extent of any such "skewing" is unknowable, since hard core survey-refusers would presumably refuse to participate whether the survey was done on the phone, in person, by mail or over the Internet.   

One helpful though admittedly inconclusive bit of evidence comes from the Pew Research Center study from 2003 that compared findings from two parallel surveys:  A "standard" five-day survey that expended "the same amount of effort that would be applied to any Pew Survey Project" had a response rate of 27% (using (using the AAPOR3 definition).  A second "rigorous" survey obtained a response rate of 51% with a much longer field period and greater effort to reassure respondents of the legitimacy of the project (procedures that included advance letters, monetary incentives and follow-up letters to refusals to "describe the survey process" -- see page 13).   

Both surveys included the following question:  "How much do you worry that computers and technology are being used to invade your privacy?"  The responses were virtually identical on both surveys.  Thirty-nine percent (39%) of standard survey respondents and 37% of the rigorous respondents said they worried "a lot;"  exactly the same percentage on both surveys (69%) worried either "some" or "a lot." 

Two conclusions:  First, even among the more eager respondents, respondents were not shy about expressing concerns about invasions of their privacy to a stranger on the telephone.   Second, the initially reluctant respondents expressed no greater privacy concerns than those who were initially more eager to do the survey.   Of course, these data do not preclude the possibility that the roughly 40% that refused might have different feelings about the invasion of their privacy, but my take from all of the data is that any "skew" is probably modest.   

Of course, your conclusions may differ.  And even anonymous comments are welcome below

UPDATE (5/13):  The results of the Newsweek poll, released on Saturday look very different.  See my take here.   

Related Entries - President Bush

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on May 12, 2006 at 09:15 AM in President Bush | Permalink

Comments

Would you agree, though, that the poll sets up a false dichotomy? Personal privacy v. stopping terrorism? And if that is the case, then how valid are the results even in the context of the shortcomings you've already described (e.g., small sample size, large MOE, etc.)?

"It is also worth remembering that the brief upward movement in President Bush's job approval rating coincided with the disclosure of the stories on NSA wiretaps in January."

Yes but this poll comes on the heels of news that his approval rating is below 30% just a few days after the lastest NSA story broke.

Seems to me this is a flawed poll to be used over and over again to support the administration's illegal acts. I can't see any positives associated with this.

Posted by: Corinne | May 12, 2006 11:10:59 AM

Gee, do you think the results would be different if hadn't been a TELEPHONE poll? :-)

Posted by: Robert | May 12, 2006 11:33:34 AM

I'm disappointed you didn't discuss my belief that the results of a telephone survey about privacy and electronic monitoring are likely invalid by definition. A person who places a low value on their personal privacy seems to be much more likely to speak on the telephone and answer personal and potentially controversial questions than a person who places a high value on personal privacy. I'm not sure you could pick a question for a phone survey that would have a significantly greater skewing effect than the Post/ABC question.

Posted by: DRM | May 12, 2006 12:11:57 PM

I also have problems with the poll, and don't see how it can be considered a useful measure of anything. The issue at hand isn't the spying--Americans have known for 50 years that the government has secret spying programs--it's that the spying was probably conducted *illegally.* This poll doesn't begin to measure people's opinion on that score.

Also bad, the questions presume a level of understanding of 1) the programs themselves and 2) constitutional law that respondents can't possibly have. So their uninformed views contribute what to the dialogue?

Posted by: Jeff Alworth | May 12, 2006 1:17:29 PM

... agree with 'Jeff Alworth' above -- the poll questions were outrageously biased.

And, of course, overnight, small-sample, telephone "polls" are totally worthless ... except as phony public-relations tools.

MP should clearly condemn such "professional" non-scientific survey research.

Posted by: KenwoodT | May 12, 2006 2:38:38 PM

You say:

"...the findings are generally consistent with previous polling on the NSA domestic eavesdropping"

Is that in fact true? Didn't the previous polling show a similar quick response majority that favored the program as understood and didn't this majority eventually wear away over the next several weeks and finish second to a mid-40s plurality against with a rather large undecided in the mix?

Posted by: Nash | May 12, 2006 2:43:27 PM

How do overnight polls stack up in general on long-term trends. I seem to remember that initial poll reaction to State of the Union addresses and sometimes to debates can be misleading.

Posted by: | May 12, 2006 3:14:01 PM

This poll is a pathetically obvious attempt by the right-wing media to innoculate President Bush against possible articles of impeachment with regards to illegal spying. Shame on them. And shame on those who give credence to their treasonous propaganda.

Posted by: Aaron | May 12, 2006 3:21:59 PM

I think a good name for this is: Preemptive Polling.

How on earth can one judge the opinions of the American people (as a whole) on any issue, when a survey is done within 24 hours of the issue being first raised?

This is utter nonsense. It raises gut-reaction, (or more likely, no informed reaction at all) to the level of fully formed opinion. Shouldnt there be a general agreement that an issue be kicked around, explored, and thought about for at least a couple of days before any poll can be viewed as meaningful?

Of course, there are those who wish to exploit unformed opinion for their own advantage....

Posted by: Tano | May 12, 2006 3:29:40 PM

Yes, this is gut reaction, but, sorry guys, that's what matters to the mass of voters, those who aren't political junkies. Furthermore, are the anti-Bush crowd really sure they want voters "fully informed"? If people are "fully informed", the "illegal" meme fails. In the first place, try to name a president, at least in the 20th century, who DIDN'T engage in such serveillance. (FDR, Truman, Carter, and Clinton did.) That blunts any edge to the charge. In the second place, the law (the actual law) is clearly against the "illegal" nonsense. See U.S. v. Brown, 1983. (Sorry, I don't have the full cite handy.) Note that this is AFTER FISA. The court held that FISA could NOT infringe upon the executive's INHERENT constitutional authority to conduct surveillance. The really interesting question then is whether FISA has any real function at all. Although the court declined to declare FISA an unconstitutional infringement on the executive's inherent authority (as say, any law infringing on the executive pardon authority would be), it is not clear that FISA has any genuine substance.

Posted by: Edward | May 12, 2006 7:39:02 PM

Well my wife and father who both HATE George Bush said they agree with the goverment monitoring what phone numbers call other phone numbers. Sorry liberals.

Posted by: Mike | May 12, 2006 7:42:15 PM

There is a huge difference between listening to you and looking for patterns in phone numbers even if they are yours.
It seems that despite constant misleading of the media the public understands this.

Posted by: Theo p. | May 12, 2006 7:43:05 PM

The most recent CBS Poll in President Bush's approval rating used the following sample:

37% Democrats
34% Independents
25% Republicans

Yet we have a poll that goes against their agenda and they look for every possible way to explain that it wasn't a fair sample?

I wonder what they would say if we did a poll with 37% Republicans and 25% democrats and Bush's approval rating came in at 52% They would be crying from the rooftops that its was a bogus sample.

Posted by: Bill Mitchell | May 12, 2006 8:00:47 PM

Obviously mentioned before, but isn't the time thing a problem. The story came out two days ago, and people probably haven't had as much time to find out about it. I also don't know that they're that consistent; the polls I've seen were in the 50s on the issue in the past. Well, I guess we'll just have to see more polling for a clearer picture.

Posted by: Nadia Hassan | May 12, 2006 8:11:13 PM

Bill says,

The most recent CBS Poll in President Bush's approval rating used the following sample:

37% Democrats
34% Independents
25% Republicans

Yet we have a poll that goes against their agenda and they look for every possible way to explain that it wasn't a fair sample?

Bill,

Has it occured to you that there are alot less Republicans these days than there used to be?

I would be curious how the poll would go if the question was...

Do approve of the Bush Administration collected your most intimate and private communications while obstructing any attempt at any oversight of such activities and even lying to Congress about it, all the while attempting to justify their actions with tortured legal arguments and some vague references to counter-terrorism although no rational person could imagine a scenario where this program could seriously be effective towards that end.

Maybe you might get different results.

Posted by: BM | May 13, 2006 6:24:14 AM

BM: Oh, yes, yes indeed. And we all know what those produce, don't we?

Posted by: John Van Laer | May 13, 2006 8:08:31 AM

THE POLL WAS BOGUS AND CRAFTED TO SKEW RESULTS!

I am amazed that MP doesn't address the off the charts FALSE choice offered respondents. This web site has just dropped significantly in my eyes as being an honest broker of information. The MP should be ashamed. I call BULLSHIT!

Posted by: Vinny From Indy | May 13, 2006 9:28:30 AM

Wow, things are getting a bit heated over here at MP, eh?

Perhaps a post comparing the ABC/WaPo poll and this one,

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12771821/site/newsweek/

might be in order?

Posted by: joran | May 13, 2006 5:19:06 PM

Joran,
You're not aupposed to say these things. Just like you shouldn't mention that Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post. Or that the poll was conducted by telecommunications industry marketing firm, TNS.

Posted by: | May 13, 2006 6:06:41 PM

Yep; there is a gigantic clash beween the WaPo poll and the Newsweek poll -- which is 53-41 against the program, with the wording of the question almost the same: "As you may know, there are reports that the NSA, a government intelligence agency, has been collecting the phone call records of Americans. The agency doesn't actually listen to the calls but logs in nearly every phone number to create a database of calls made within the United States. Which of the following comes CLOSER to your own view of this domestic surveillance program? It is a necessary tool to combat terrorism. It goes too far in invading people's privacy."

The one difference in wording is that the WaPo poll said that the agency doesn't "listen to or record the conversations"; while the Newsweek poll only said that it does not "listen to" them, but doesn't specify that it doesn't "record" them -- and I doubt that that is enough to explain the radical difference in poll results. Clearly we have here a major mystery. And since you ARE the Mystery Pollster, this is clearly a Job for You.

(My own reaction would be that I would have no objection to the government keeping a log of the numbers of my phone calls -- IF I could be certain that that was all they were doing without a warrant. But if there's one thing we've learned about this Administration, it's that it has a strong tendency to -- what's the tactful word? -- conceal what it's really doing, which may explain why it's also so frantic to reject any system of semi-independent judicial monitoring at all to ensure that it ISN'T doing more.)

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | May 13, 2006 6:32:40 PM

Yes, things do seem a bit more "heated" here than usual. But the fundamental issue is quite serious.

MP seems to be taking a rather ho-hum approach to the obvious deficiencies in that ABC/WashPost poll, though that poll is currently a key factor in overall media reaction to the very serious NSA issue.

As a metaphor, ABC/WashPost advertise prime Filet-Mignon to their customers -- but delivered stale Meat-Loaf, in their deceptive poll.
Any forthright analysis of that poll would strongly take ABC/WashPost to task.

MP states a mission of ""Demystifying the Science and Art of Political Polling" -- not making subjective assessments about comparative political gains by the President with various public-relations
options.

Was this ABC/WashPost poll scientifically valid or not ??

Posted by: DerekM | May 13, 2006 6:42:48 PM

Bruce - IMHO, this is not a major mystery. If the wording is similiar enough so as to not affect the result, there must be some difference between the polls that explains the different numbers, right?

One poll was done the same day that the story broke in one newswpaper. How many of the 500 Americans (presumably non-political junkie Americans) had even heard about the specific newstory, much last grasped its its full import when the phone rang that night asking for their opinion?

The other poll started the following day and went for 48 hours - 48 hours where every newspaper, every radio station, and every television news show (local and national, news and commentary) had details and opinions on the story.

Which poll would you trust as more accurate? I am always going to go with the poll where the subjects had a grasp on the details of the subject they were being asked about. Here, its Newsweek...

Posted by: MS in PS but not in Polling | May 13, 2006 7:31:31 PM

Just to elaborate a bit...

I'm interested in a comparison of the two polls not because I think one of them is crap/dishonest/invalid.

I think the two polls are interesting because it raises the (very common!) issue in polling of "What exactly have we measured?"

Based on past polling, and these two, it seems that people's opinions on the general topic of NSA surveilence depends rather strongly on how we phrase the question. That can make it very difficult to know exactly what opinion it is we are getting from people.

Of course, this is an interesting problem with all polling. This happens to be a particularly interesting instance of it.

So. If we ignore the media coverage of the ABC/WaPo poll (I know, big if), it's a perfectly "valid" poll on its own. The issue is what exactly have we measured? I think that whatever it is they measured, they probably did a pretty good job of it. (The more I reread that last sentence, the funnier it seems to me...)

I feel like this is an inherently difficult topic to conduct polls on for the following reason:

1.) It's complicated. I follow this stuff pretty closely, but since I have no legal training, I have a pretty hard time really grasping the legal issues involved. Even reasonably level-headed legal experts (I'm thinking Orin Kerr here) are pretty cautious about making judgements about the legality of the programs involved.

2.) There are several issues intertwined. Is what the NSA did legal? Is it right? Is it wrong even if it's legal? Is it right even if it's illegal?

I'll agree that MP's original post seemed a bit casual compared to his previous posts on other issues. But let's not jump down his throat about it.

I suspect that all this broo-ha-ha in the comments, and the addition of the newsweek poll will elicit an update from MP eventually. As much as I'd love to have MP do nothing else but post stuff on his blog, that probably isn't going to happen. In any case, I'd rather he take his time, put some thought into it, and post something substantial in a few days time.

Posted by: joran | May 13, 2006 9:03:17 PM

Newsweek Poll just out today (Sunday) directly contradicts WaPo on this issue.

Posted by: Alan Abramowitz | May 13, 2006 9:56:51 PM

I've posted comments on the Newsweek poll -- and the big differences between the two -- here:
http://www.mysterypollster.com/main/2006/05/another_day_a_v.html

Posted by: Mark Blumenthal | May 13, 2006 10:38:20 PM

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