Can Policy Polling Be Trusted?

Surveys measuring public opinion on political issues face a different set of challenges than most election polls.

Non-horserace polling is facing increased skepticism. The filibuster is drawing increasingly polarized responses. And the Affordable Care Act is more popular than it ever was during Barack Obama’s presidency. This is HuffPollster for Friday, April 7, 2017.

ISSUE POLLING IS UNDER NEW SCRUTINY IN THE WAKE OF LAST YEAR’S ELECTION - HuffPollster, Natalie Jackson and Janie Velencia, in an excerpt from Trumped: The 2016 Election That Broke All the Rules: “The debate over what factors caused pollsters to err in 2016 is likely to continue for some time, as is the argument as to what extent the miss represents either a critical failure for the industry or simply a demonstration of overcertainty by pundits and forecasters. But regardless of the magnitude of the error, polling systematically overstated the likelihood of a Clinton win.That’s something pollsters will have to grapple with in the next election. It’s also something that, as the country settles down to the business of governing, raises a more immediate question: how much can polls be trusted to measure the public’s support for policies? That question is more than academic. While horse-race surveys may command the bulk of attention, polls that gauge the national mood on issues of policy serve at least as important a role in the democratic process. Writing off their results as intrinsically unreliable would potentially leave much of the nation voiceless in the years between elections.” [Sabato’s Crystal Ball]

A different set of challenges from election polling - More from the Pollster team: “Fortunately, some of the major pitfalls faced by campaign polling are inherently less problematic for policy surveys. Likely voter models — pollsters’ methods for determining which Americans will turn out in the election — were probably a significant source of inaccuracy….[E]ven polling errors large enough to put horse-race surveys at odds with the results of an election may have less meaningful consequences when it comes to interpreting public opinion. Differences of two points in election surveys can change the outcome, but a two-point difference in opinion on an issue isn’t usually substantial….While policy polling may be spared from some of the problems afflicting horse-race polls, they’re also potentially subject to a number of serious issues whose presence should inform the way their results are interpreted....[M]any people never adopt strong positions on current events or policy issues, especially those that are complicated or receive limited news coverage….Issue polling may also be deeply affected by how pollsters choose to word their questions. That problem is virtually nonexistent in horse-race polls, where wording generally reflects the questions people will see on their ballot, allowing for relatively uniform phrasing.”

ADDING DONALD TRUMP’S NAME TO A POLL AFFECTS THE RESPONSES - Chris Kahn and James Oliphant: “Republicans generally agree that politicians should not enrich themselves while running the country. Yet most think it is okay for President Donald Trump to do so. Democrats largely support the idea of government-run healthcare. But their support plummets when they learn that Trump once backed the idea. At a time of already deep fissures among American voters on political, cultural and economic issues, Trump further polarizes the public as soon as he wades into the debate, according to the results of a Reuters/Ipsos poll. The poll suggests any effort to reach a consensus on key policy issues could be complicated simply by Trump’s involvement. The survey from Feb. 1 to March 15 of nearly 14,000 people asked respondents to consider a series of statements Trump has made on taxes, crime and the news media, among other issues. In many cases, the data showed that people will orient their opinions according to what they think of Trump.” [Reuters, interactive results]

OPINIONS ON THE FILIBUSTER ARE INCREASINGLY POLARIZED - Kathy Frankovic, on a poll taken before the Senate deployed the “nuclear option” Thursday: “As they have said in previous polls, Americans this week say the filibuster is generally a good thing and they don’t want to see it eliminated. But opinion on the filibuster has become increasingly politicized in the last few weeks. Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were divided when it came to whether the filibuster was a good idea. Now, by 43% to 31%, they say it is not. In the same period, Democrats have become more supportive of the filibuster, and say it is a good thing by more than four to one. Democrats reject the nuclear option. By more than three to one, they don’t think the filibuster should be eliminated. They would keep it. Republicans, however, who three weeks ago were divided closely on whether or not the filibuster should be eliminated, now say they would get rid of it by nearly two to one.” [YouGov]

ACA POPULARITY HITS A RECORD HIGH - HuffPollster: “Republicans are trying to pick up the pieces of their plan to repeal Obamacare, nearly two weeks after their last effort failed. But now they face a new problem: The law has become more popular than ever. Americans’ views of the current health care law are more positive than they’ve been since the bill was signed in 2010. On average, nearly half of the public now favors Obamacare, according to HuffPost Pollster’s aggregate, with only about 42 percent opposed. According to a new Gallup survey, Obamacare approval has jumped 13 percentage points in the last five months, thanks to increased backing from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as a notable 17-point swing among political independents….In the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest tracking poll, views of the current health care law are evenly split, with 46 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed. But 64 percent of Americans say it’s a good thing that the GOP health care plan failed ― 31 percent because they oppose an Obamacare repeal, and 29 percent because they had concerns about replacing it with the Republicans’ American Health Care Act.” [HuffPost, Pollster health care chart, more from KFF and Gallup]

PAUL RYAN TAKES A BIG DIP IN FAVORABILITY RATINGS - HuffPollster: “Speaker Paul Ryan’s ratings keep falling in a new Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday. Only 28 percent of American voters said they feel favorably toward the Wisconsin Republican. Fifty-two percent said they view him unfavorably, an 18-point increase from May 2016. Ryan’s unfavorable ratings have been rising since December. Even Rasmussen Reports, whose numbers are often more conservative than those of other pollsters, found him with lower ratings in its March 27 poll. Ryan is most well-liked among Republicans, although only 57 percent of them viewed him favorably in Quinnipiac’s latest poll. Even among demographic groups that have most strongly supported President Donald  Trump ― such as white voters without a college degree, people over the age of 65, and men ― Ryan doesn’t come close to a net positive approval rating.” [HuffPost, more from Quinnipiac]

TRUMP ADVISOR STEVE BANNON IS ALSO WIDELY DISLIKED - Mark Blumenthal: “As pundits and Washington insiders ponder President Trump’s removal of chief strategist Stephen Bannon from the National Security Council, one thing is clear: Bannon has become a familiar name to many and is unpopular among Americans who known him. A SurveyMonkey poll of adults nationwide shows twice as many rate Bannon unfavorably (42 percent) as favorably (20 percent), although more than a third say they don’t know him well enough to rate him (34 percent) or do not answer the question (3 percent). The percentage who have a strongly unfavorable rating of Bannon (34 percent) is four times the number with a strongly favorable rating (8 percent). Bannon’s profile is similar to that of other well known Trump advisers, such as Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. All have favorable ratings of between 19 and 26 percent, and unfavorables in the mid-40s.” [HuffPost]

LITTLE PAST SUPPORT FOR MILITARY ACTION IN SYRIA - The United States launched a direct military attack at the Syrian government on Thursday. While it’s too early to know how the American public will greet the move, such intervention was unpopular when it was considered by then-president Barack Obama in 2013. HuffPollster, from September of that year: “Americans are far less likely to support military action in Syria than they have been in the past 20 years to endorse other interventions, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Gallup poll released Friday finds. Asked whether they favored or opposed the United States taking military action against Syria in order to reduce that country’s ability to use chemical weapons, just 36 percent said they favored doing so, while 51 percent were in opposition. In comparison, a majority of the public supported action during the run-up to engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf in 1991. Views on military intervention in Kosovo and the Balkans were about evenly split. In many of those cases, support rose once military action had started, according to Gallup, something known as a rally effect.” [HuffPost]

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FRIDAY’S ‘OUTLIERS’ - Links to the best of news at the intersection of polling, politics and political data:

-Trump voters overwhelmingly say they’d side with him over their own member of Congress. [HuffPollster]

-Most Americans say tensions between the Trump administration and the media is unhealthy. [Pew]

-The majority of the nation opposes funding a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. [AP]

-Nate Cohn sees reason for Democrats to expect robust midterm turnout next year. [NYT]

-David Wasserman introduces 2017’s Partisan Voter Index. [Cook Political]

-Nate Silver argues that nuking the filibuster could eventually hurt Republicans. [538]

-Amanda Clayton, Diana Z. O’Brien and Jennifer M. Piscopo find that Americans don’t like all-male panels, especially when it comes to women’s rights. [WashPost]

-Eli Yokley writes that most people don’t want a government shutdown...unless it comes to certain hot-button issues. [Morning Consult]

-Drew DeSilver breaks down how the federal government spent tax dollars in 2016. [Pew]