Twisted Media Misuses Poll in Attempt to Downplay ‘Tea Parties’

Matt Towery
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Posted: Apr 17, 2009 12:00 AM

Most pollsters, including the long-honored Gallup Organization, try to be accurate regardless of personal opinion. It’s our reputation on the line.

For example, my firm just polled President Barack Obama’s approval rating following the rescue by Navy Seals of a ship’s captain held hostage by pirates. The InsiderAdvantage poll showed Obama’s approval ratings rose and most Americans gave him strong marks for his handling of the crisis. That’s an honest poll that some might not like, but it’s true, and put into a proper context.

So why can’t media around the nation put other polls into proper context? I gave many examples of the twisting of polling data in my book “Paranoid Nation.” But here’s the latest and greatest: In coverage of the hundreds of “tea parties” held April 15 to protest spending and taxation in America, many national reports not only grossly underestimated the real numbers of those present at such rallies, they also managed to include a Gallup Poll that defeated the very point they were trying to make.

Many reports referenced “hundreds of people,” when the turnout at a given protest might actually have been in the thousands. Additionally, many said the tea parties were sponsored or fueled by “right-wing activist groups” or “conservative talk show hosts and Fox News.” Wow! Did they ever identify the groups that supplied huge numbers for rallies for Obama during his campaign, or attribute special coverage to a more “left-of-center” TV news organization?

But as a pollster who must tell it like it is, I was particularly struck that many of the national stories I read included a Gallup Poll that suggested Americans are happier with the amount of taxes they pay now than at any time since 1956, when Gallup first started asking the question.

This, of course, was somehow to convince the reader that there is no unrest over taxation and that those protesting were just out of step with everyone else. How stupid! Consider the following logic:

The Gallup survey reported that 48 percent of respondents said the “amount of income tax they pay is about right.” That was indeed the strongest response since 1956. The problem for many who used the poll is that they missed the point. Yes, people are happier. That’s because the tax cuts begun under President Ronald Reagan, improved upon under Newt Gingrich’s Republican-led House of Representatives and cut again under President George W. Bush are still in effect.

The survey did not and could not possibly measure how happy everyone will be when or if the Democratic Congress and the president implement their full tax plan.

The articles that quoted the Gallup Poll missed the entire point of the tea parties. They were protests over massive spending that will result in an unsupportable tax burden on future generations. They were protests over the growth of government and its intrusion into every aspect of the private sector. They were protests designed to start a movement that will be primed when the Democrats’ new tax policies go into effect. And we aren’t talking just about income tax. Even those who are promised a tax cut under the Democrats’ plan run the risk of seeing hidden taxes -- such as the proposed fees on energy -- lead to a net loss of money in their pockets.

What really bothers me is that what is good for the goose is never good for the gander. Many of America’s top nonpartisan pollsters come originally from partisan backgrounds. Yet we almost all strive to call things as they are. That’s why I take heat when I tell my conservative friends that President Obama remains highly popular and that the Republicans’ best target is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose name identification has risen and whose approval ratings are in the tank.

But polling data is often manipulated by media, or released just at the right moment to support a view that is simply unfair to conservatives, libertarians, or even independent moderates.

But this time those misinterpreting the poll data fail to realize they shot themselves in the foot. They didn’t validate that the protesters were out of step. Much to the contrary, they validated that years of tax cuts have Americans the happiest about their taxes -- though still not all that happy -- since Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps those who chose to use the Gallup Poll to pour cold water on the tea parties need a splash of it on their own red faces.