With elections right around the corner, the Power Line crew will be spending a lot of time reading and analyzing polls. I think it’s fair to say that the ubiquity of polling is one of the major ways in which our public life is different from that of a generation ago. But polls have to be read carefully and with some skepticism. A few days ago there was a lot of comment about an English poll in which a plurality of UK residents ranked the death of Princess Diana as the most important event of the last 100 years, ahead of both world wars, among other things. Well, it can’t possibly be true that most Britons consider Diana’s death to be more important than World War II. I don’t know whether a lot of people were having fun with the pollsters or what, but that result simply can’t be taken seriously. A less bizarre example of polling that can’t be right is this CNN/Time poll. CNN headlines the fact that the poll shows a drop in support for military action against Iraq from 73% in December to 51% last week. The article says this decline in support is “spurred more by practical concerns than by ethical ones.” No kidding–look at the data that follow the main question. If this poll is to be believed, 88% of Americans think that military action against Iraq is likely to lead to higher oil prices; 77% think it is likely to lead to more terrorism in the U.S.; 74% think it is likely to increase instability in the Middle East; and 55% think it is likely to bring about another recession. Now, if people really believed that all those consequences were likely to result from war with Iraq, wouldn’t they be crazy to support the attack? After all, the main purpose of regime change in Iraq is to prevent future terrorism here. Here is how I would interpret these data: When people say in a poll that they believe something to be true, what they often mean is that it sounds familiar. These data show that the endless negativity promoted by the news media and the Democrats (with help from a few Republicans) has had an effect–the arguments against an attack have sunk into peoples’ awareness. Yet most people have enough good sense to realize that Saddam is a serious threat and that we have no alternative but to depose him, notwithstanding the carping that fills the daily news. If I were President Bush, I would read these data optimistically. Most Americans already know that he is right about Iraq, and simply need to be reminded of the reasons why. The public relations campaign that is now starting should do just that.
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