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A glaring omission: Pollsters’ choice of questions shapes the political conversation

Polls assume what the public cares about.

The Washington Post-ABC News Poll published on Sept. 9 is as interesting for what it ignores as for what it reveals.

Question No. 13 asks registered voters which of the following will be “the single most important issue in your vote for Congress”: the economy and jobs, international conflicts, health care, the way things are working in Washington, immigration, or something else? Eleven percent said “something else.”

Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

The omissions of climate change, wealth disparity, and Citizens United (campaign finance reform) are curious and glaring. The poll assumes what the public cares about. By ignoring these matters that reach beyond partisan divides the poll demonstrates one of two things: Either  the Washington Post-ABC New Poll is out of touch with those who live on Main Street or their bread is buttered by Wall Street and the 1 percent.

Polling and news institutions not only measure public opinion; they shape public discussion by the choices they make about which questions to ask.

Role of the press

The American public is often smarter than given credit for. But its intelligence and its opinions on public policy issues are informed and shaped by the information we receive from the “Fourth Estate” which — in theory, if not always in practice — is independent from the three government branches of the U.S. Constitution. The “free press” is the people’s watchdog, monitoring the actions and decisions of the three constitutional estates and their complex bureaucracies and institutions. We look to the free press to do for its readers what the individual cannot do: investigate the way things are — who’s making the deals and why, who’s stacking the deck, and who’s dealing from the bottom of the deck.

As the ownership of newspapers, radio stations and TV cable and satellite dish companies has shrunk to the size of the 1 percent who live on Wall Street, the press, like the three constitutional estates, is not so free. While Republicans and Democrats argue about whether climate change is real and while Congress fails to act, it falls to the Fourth Estate to exercise whatever freedom it may still have to raise the flag of the single most important issue facing not only the planet itself. The same is true with the moral issue of the wealth disparity and the Supreme Court’s decision that turns the American electoral system over to the highest bidder.

The detail of those who answered “something else” shows the 14 percent of “white non-evangelical Protestants” in response to Question 13. Among this subset — the “traditional” Protestant churches (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Congregationalist United Church of Christ, Unitarian-Universalist) — much attention has been paid from pulpits and from church position statements to the alarming growth in wealth disparity and the environmental degradation that has led us to the brink of “climate departure” when there will be no way back.

Climate change: a darkening global cloud

Nothing on the list of “single most important” issues is as long-lasting as climate change. It is the darkening global cloud under which all other issues exist. Framing the public discussion as a choice between the economy and jobs, international conflicts, health care, the way things are working in Washington, or immigration continues the myopic gridlock that keeps our eyes too low to the ground.

It makes little difference whether one proclaims or denies that the changes in weather patterns are evidence of global climate change that call for action now to reduce carbon and methane emissions. We all know that something is happening here on the North American continent and around the “pale blue dot” (Carl Sagan) that is changing the planet as we have known it.

Enter Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) who answered “something else!” on “Meet the Press.”

Congratulations to “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd for widening the discussion.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart  is the pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, where he serves as moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally. He blogs at Views from the Edge


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/15/2014 - 11:44 am.

    Thank you for bringing

    this significant problem to light. I haven’t seen a good poll come out of any one in ages. It must be marketers writing the polls on researchers.

    I would verbally slap these pollsters up side the head if given a chance. I was trained by the two sociologists in my section that if you are going to take up peoples time you better be respectful of it and get something useful out of it.

    That is not what these polls do.

  2. Submitted by Stuart & Lisa Macdonald & Hinz on 09/15/2014 - 12:03 pm.

    Know Your Free Press

    If the news source is owned by a corporation, I assume it represents the interest of the 1% or the corporation(s).

    If it’s non-profit or out of the USA, I assume I will receive information not readily available from network news.

    Additionally, the ‘newspapers of record’ in the USA have all demonstrated to me that they have a bias towards the 1%, white privilege, and corporate interests. I have read articles in one where the research developed for a story was discounted and dismissed in the editorial section. ‘We don’t care what the reporter and researcher found, it’s not true’.

    So if you’re getting your news from network stations or corporate owned newspapers, you don’t have a clue as to What Is Going On (WIGO).

    And if you’re reading MinnPost, you already know this!!!!

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/15/2014 - 03:46 pm.

    not the polls, but yes to the news media

    It’s not the polls, or the poll questions that are shaping US opinion. Most people don’t read polls and have never been surveyed by pollsters.
    Also, most people form opinions based on their own experiences. For example, the climate change issue the author related. On the morning of Sept. 13, here in St. Cloud, I found a sheet of ice on our tabletop outside on the deck. I remember thinking, “So much for global warming!”
    However, if the news media continues to rant in a steady drumbeat that only Minnesota is cold, and the rest of the world is warming, I can see how people’s opinions can be influenced.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 09/15/2014 - 04:48 pm.

      Sorry, Rosalind

      but your inability to distinguish the weather in your own backyard from global climate change is not the fault of the media.

      • Submitted by jody rooney on 09/15/2014 - 06:51 pm.

        Just as an aside we did a correlation of

        the complaints on water levels on one of the reservoirs operated by the Corps of Engineers. The data analysis of a 40 years of record showed that complaints were not tied to the level of the reservoir as compared to absolute elevation but from the change from the previous year.

        We have a very short reference for routine events.

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