The problem with surveys of us the people!


This just in concerning background checks: Everyone and his great uncle has mentioned the fact that 90 percent of the public supported expanded background checks on gun purchases.

The polling seemed quite clear. Then, the gun bill got voted down, in a Senate vote where 55 senators would have supported the background check provision.

Today, Pew and the Washington Post have released a new survey of public opinion. Respondents were asked this question:

What word best describes how you feel about the Senate voting down new gun control legislation that included background checks on gun purchases?

Choices: Very happy, Relieved, Disappointed, Angry.

In the survey, 47 percent said they were disappointed or angry. Only 39 percent said they were very happy or relieved. Still, it’s hard to square this new result with the widespread polling which suggested that expanded background checks were wildly popular.

It’s hard to square this new result with the prior polling. For that reason, Chris Cillizza has simply dreamed up an explanation. To see his attempt, just click here.

Cillizza at least makes it sound like he has an explanation. Pending some fuller explanation, we will only say this:

This is the problem with polling us the people on anything more complex than who we plan to vote for in a two-person election.

As a group, we the people rarely understand policy questions. When we’re surveyed on such questions, we often produce baffling, contradictory survey results.

For the last few months, we have been told, again and again, about the very high percentage in favor of expanded background checks. And yes, the polling really existed. Over the weekend, Fox News asked this survey question:

Do you favor or oppose expanding background checks on gun buyers?

In that survey, 82 percent said they favored expanding background checks. But how do we square results like that with this new result?

An explanation may emerge. Maybe Pew and the Post screwed up. Until then, this is the problem with polling us the people on policy questions like this.


  1. I wonder whether general distrust of the legislative process played a role. Recall Nancy Pelosi once committed a "Kinsley gaffe" by saying we had to pass the health care bill to find out what was in it. Sure enough, after the bill passed, the American people learned of a number of surprising and distasteful provisions. We're also learning that the bill may be impractical and expensive.

    I know that the gun bill called for more background checks, but I don't know what else it did. I don't know if it included a practical way to perform the background checks. Given my uncertainty, I'm just as glad that the bill didn't pass. Perhaps others feel as I do.

    BTW IMHO that Pew poll may be slightly biased, because it doesn't acknowledge that background checks are already required when a gun is purchased from a dealer. I would have preferred a wording like " gun control legislation that expanded the use of background checks..."

    1. It suggests to me that some cowardly... bought-by-the-NRA senators weren't so clueless and/or dismissive of the feelings of their constituents as was said about them.

      It suggests too that Joe and Mika are going to get have to tone it down a notch for a day or two.

  2. You suggest these poll results are contradictory and indicative that it is because, there is a "problem with polling us the people on anything more complex than who we plan to vote for in a two-person election" and as
    "a group, we the people rarely understand policy questions."

    I would suggest, as an individual, you the blogger don't understand polling. The two polls ask about different things. One asks a simple question about a policy with a simple response set. The other asks about personal emotions relative to an event which includes a reference to a policy which is stated as being a part of the event.
    A person therefore could be in favor of expanded background checks but happy about the Senate result because he or she saw that result as a defeat for Obama or a defeat for banning semi automatic weapons.

    The only way to say the results "don't square", to use your term of analysis, would be to ask the simple policy question, then ask a separate, follow up question about
    the reaction of the same respondent to the defeat of that policy, with identical wording to describe that policy.

    What this WaPo-Pew poll shows is that Senators who opposed the measure, particularly Republicans may have been making a valid political calculation.

  3. Surveys are important, but something has to be done with these results. And yes, some interpretation about what conclusions to draw is missing, too. For example, the survey about sexual assault. Today it's very easy to become the victim of ill-minded person; I'm talking not about sexual assault. Very often students search for some professionals writers who write essays online and become preys of scammers. Very often people don’t want to talk about being cheated or assaulted, so the society must work to tackle this problem.

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