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February 24, 2006

Gallup's Newport on Real Wiretapping Polls

Let's stay on the subject of the domestic eavesdropping issue, but go back to what real polls have to say about it.  Today, Gallup's Frank Newport posted a highly relevant analysis looking at results from a number of different polling organizations, as well as a shorter summary of the same material in their daily video briefing.  MP took a similar look at this issue (with the help of the Numbers Guy) a few weeks ago, but Newport does a very systematic analysis of the different ways pollsters have asked about the wiretapping issue.  His in-depth written report  is definitely worth reading in full, but do so quickly.  Like all Gallup reports, it is free for today (and in this case the weekend), but will turn into a subscription-only pumpkin on Monday.  The video briefing should remain available to all. 

Here is the crux of Newport's analysis: 

The fact that arguments for and against the wiretapping program focus on two powerful principles -- defending the nation against terrorism and protecting the privacy rights of individuals -- adds to the complexity of this issue 

It is reasonable to assume that when Americans are asked about the wiretapping program, they are sensitive to cues in the question wording that stress one or the other of these dimensions. As a result, different ways of asking about the program could, in theory, quite easily yield different response patterns. 

A review of questions asked on wiretapping across a number of polling organizations over the last month or two shows that while there is some variation in public opinion on the issue, it is not as large as might be expected. In other words, despite the newness of the issue, attitudes appear to be generally similar regardless of how the question is asked. The data from a number of different questions suggest that the American public is roughly divided on the wiretapping issue, with the most recent survey results suggesting a slight tilt toward approval of the program.

Those bored with my "Roboscam" obsession are advised to go read Newport's report right now.  It's worth the click. 

For those of you still reading, consider the implications of Newport's analysis for the ongoing debate (that includes bloggers Gerry Daly and Gordon Fischer and various MP readers) who have been scrutinizing the language used in the recorded calls.  One big challenge in the debate is the lack of an audio recording or true verbatim transcript of any of the calls.  We have only the recollections of those who were called to go on (again, if you do have a recording captured on an answering machine or know someone who does, please email me). 

Most recipients who have described the details remember hearing the wiretapping described as "illegal."   Others remember hearing that they were "domestic" or that they involved "American citizens."  Some heard that they were done "without a warrant," others are certain they never heard that phrase.  Some remember hearing Al Gore's name invoked as a critic, others are certain the calls never mentioned Gore.  And one reader who emailed remembers hearing that their Congressman "supports" the Bush wiretaps "for national security purposes." 

Now as noted previously, these differences may be due to memory lapses among the recipients or variations in the calls themselves.  Obviously, we have no way of knowing.

However, if we assume that all of the calls refer to the wiretaps as "illegal" or done "without a warrant" in one breath, and as done "for national security purposes" in another, then the calls reference both of the "two powerful principles" that Frank Newport referred to.  If so, the intent of the calls' language -- regarding only the wiretapping issue -- may be to try to simulate the national political dialogue on wiretapping for the purposes of "data harvesting" rather than to "push" opinion one way or another.

The really big, but sadly ambiguous clue to the Roboscammers's identity is the way they consistently describe the Democratic members of Congress as "supporting" the Bush wiretaps, who in many cases do not.   I believe that tells us that one of the motivations (though certainly not the prime motivation) of whomever is doing this is to prompt liberal Democrats to put pressure on their member of Congress to oppose the program.  This tells us the calls are coming from either someone on the Left who wants to see more Democrats stand up to the President, or someone on the Right who wants the same thing in order to set up Karl Rove's hoped for debate on wiretapping and to just generally sow discord in the Democratic base. 

At this point, I have my guess, yours may be different, but we really cannot know for certain. 

Related Entries - Measurement Issues, Polls in the News, Push "Polls" , Roboscam

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on February 24, 2006 at 05:12 PM in Measurement Issues, Polls in the News, Push "Polls" , Roboscam | Permalink


"The really big, but sadly ambiguous clue to the Roboscammers's identity is the way they consistently describe the Democratic members of Congress as "supporting" the Bush wiretaps, who in many cases do not"

Just checking-- have you found statements from each of the Republicans, prior to the calls, stating that they supported the program as is?

Because it sure seems like you are putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that the calls misstated some Democrats' position, when I am not clear at all that the calls got the Republicans' positions correct. I think it is more than possible that the calls did not bother to check regardless of who was involved.

So if that's the case, was it a side wanting to screw up the other, or was it a side trying to move things-- and if so, was it by trying to piss off the other side's support (and if so, which side) and if so, was it by trying to give the impression of momentum (and that everyone supports the program)?

Still seeing a lot of supposition, and not a lot of evidence in either direction-- and what little evidence I do see, I don't think supports where you are supposing.

Posted by: Gerry | Feb 25, 2006 12:40:38 AM

I disagree with Mystery Pollster's endorsement of Newport's conclusion that the debate involves just "two powerful principles -- defending the nation against terrorism and protecting the privacy rights of individuals."

Where does this binary balance leave most of the opponents of the White House position? They can...

1)Agree that domestic surveillance is appropriate

2)Agree that personal privacy does not trump all other priorities

3)Agree that the FISA requirements for warrants need to be changed


Insist that the President had no inherent power (either derived from the Constitution or from the use-of-force resolution) to make those changes unilaterally.

For many of the President's critics it is not his support of surveillance or even his invasion of privacy that is the big issue here, it is his claim that his Commander-in-Chief status in times of war gives him a Lincolnesque immunity from the rule of law.

Indeed, many of the President's supporters agree: what is at issue in this controversy is his Constitutional ability to conduct the War on Terrorism untrammeled by the other two branches of government, not whether the individual policy (NSA warrantless domestic wiretaps) was prudent or necessary.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall | Feb 25, 2006 11:33:16 AM

I would add to Mr. Tyndall's comment another matter of fact omitted by most of the poll questions Gallup cites. "Suspected terrorists," according to all available evidence, include vast numbers of Americans who may or may not have any involvement in politics, let alone "terrorism." The surveillance begins earlier than conventional wiretaps, with the NSA collecting vast amounts of data on Americans' private communications, then "mining" that data to discern patterns that theoretically identify "potential terrorists." This fact is hard to explain in the few seconds allotted to a poll question. But I suspect the results might be different if poll participants were given some idea of how wide a net the Administration wants to cast unsupervised by judges or Congress.

Posted by: Mark Horowitz | Feb 26, 2006 12:55:29 AM

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