Flaws make Harris Interactive’s “Wingnuts” poll more distracting than informative, perhaps because it is touched by a promotional intent. The poll is driven by publication of a “new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America by John Avlon,” which deals with people who express extreme views of President Obama.
As Gary Langer writes for ABC News:
The purpose seems to have been to see how many people the pollsters could get to agree to pejorative statements about Obama. Quite a few, it turns out – but with what I see as a highly manipulative approach to questionnaire design.
The shaky findings are nonetheless startling. Harris reports:
This Harris Poll seeks to measure how many people are involved. It finds that 40% of adults believe he is a socialist. More than 30% think he wants to take away Americans’ right to own guns and that he is a Muslim. More than 25% believe he wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a world government, has done many things that are unconstitutional, that he resents America’s heritage, and that he does what Wall Street tells him to do.
More than 20% believe he was not born in the United States, that he is “the domestic enemy the U.S. Constitution speaks of,” that he is racist and anti-American, and that he “wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.” Fully 20% think he is “doing many of the things that Hitler did,” while 14% believe “he may be the anti-Christ” and 13% think “he wants the terrorists to win.”
Langer, director of polling at ABC news, points to the poll’s sampling issues before walking point by point from the poll’s “biasing introductory phrase,” through its lack of balance in choices offered respondents and other techniques which are outside the realm of best scientific polling practice.
At no point does this Harris Poll fall to the level of propagandistic accumulations like the anti-health reform stunt by National Center for Policy Analysis/ Salem Radio Network or essentially meaningless lists of unverified names like the one being accumulated on behalf of the Manhattan Declaration. Nor is it flatly dishonest, as the Christian Medical & Dental Associations is when asserting that its poll shows that “95 percent of faith-based physicians say they will be forced to leave medicine without conscience protections.”
Although Harris does go a little over the edge, as Langer explains:
Admittedly it’s a challenge to measure these sorts of sentiments. Unless carefully crafted, with balance and an approach that encourages due consideration and probes for meaning, simply asking the question can turn into little more than the old reporter’s trick of piping quotes. It’s a shopworn use of true/false and agree/disagree questions, one long overdue for retirement.
Harris indeed goes the next step by reporting its results as what its respondents’ “believe” and as opinions they “hold,” as if they themselves came up with these notions, rather than having them one-sidedly set before them on a platter. Call me what you will – and I know it can get nasty out there – but from my perspective, this is not good polling practice.
Another poll would be helpful. Until then, things probably aren’t as bad as they look.
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