Penetrating the Polls

Posted: Oct 05, 2003 12:00 AM

The front-page New York Times/CBS poll raises the hopes of Democratic presidential aspirants, and raises political questions, as polls are supposed to do. The headline feature is that more Americans now disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy than approve of it, and this by a very substantial (56/37) majority. On foreign policy, the voters are evenly divided (44 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove).
A highbrow association of scholars has brought out an interesting exploration, best explained in a single sentence from its introduction: "Does the public believe that gun control is an important issue because the news media cover it so extensively?" Addressing that question was a project of the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval, a division of the department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts. The enterprise tracked opinion polls for eight years, from l990 to l998, and then the frequency with which corresponding issues and public figures were treated. The researchers undertook to designate which was "the most important problem facing the nation on each of l00 days." The project absorbed 29 research assistants who put in l0,000 person-hours to compile their findings. It is accessible here.

A widely known difficulty of academic writing is its determined inscrutability. There is, then, the creeping realization, as one reads on, that we are being given what we tend to know from the exercise of common sense; being given it, moreover, in language we have no great appetite to master, e.g., "P_xx, the percent of poll respondents who felt that xx (e.g., HE [health], IN [international problems], GU [guns, gun control] was currently the most important problem facing the nation."

Is the steep decline in the approval of Bush something that was brought on by the news? Or by the handling of the news? If a respondent confined his news watching to, say, CNN, would a researcher, after successive pollings over a year, observe a diminished approval of Bush out of correspondence with objective reasons for that diminished approval?

As an abstract matter, we know that public reaction to an event is substantially shaped by the way it is depicted by the press. If the stress is overwhelmingly on the terrible life and privations of the mother who drowned her two children, commiserative attention tends to seep from the dead children to the live mother. Objective news developments don't easily bend to commentators' bias. If the reports tell us that the weather has been fine, we are prepared, if we come upon the weather man, to deploy our umbrella to other uses than to shield us from the torrential rains.

This much should be granted on the question of Bush's decline in approval as a foreign policy leader, namely that public expectations are indisputably set by the media. If it were assumed that the military exercise in Iraq would require conventional sacrifices in human life, measured by a century of experience, then current losses being sustained would not have figured largely in an accounting of the Bush decline.

The New York Times poll tells us that about one-half of the American people believed that removing Saddam Hussein from power was the main reason for taking military action in Iraq. "About a quarter said the main reason was to protect the oil supply." How did that idea get about? Protecting the oil supply wasn't advertised by President Bush or any of his spokesmen. Was that one-quarter who thought it the main motive, the same Americans who tend to reach for materialist explanations for policy decisions? Who feeds them? CNN? Dan Rather? The Nation magazine?

The curious observer can intelligently conclude that the fall by Bush in foreign policy leadership runs hand in hand with reversals in Iraq and in the U.N. But hardly hand in hand with the movement of the economy. In July 2002 Bush's approval as economic overseer was at 56 percent. The economic indices, since then, have been sharply favorable; yet unemployment lingers. Four out of ten people, the poll tells us, worry that one person in their household will lose a job in the next year.

The poll reflects either insubstantial leadership by Mr. Bush, or erratic judgment by the people polled.