Front Loading the Phrasing to Obtain Desired Poll Results

By Dan Cadman on July 4, 2016

The Immigration Reading list compiled and e-mailed weekly by the Center often makes for some interesting stuff for those like myself who like to dig down into the weeds on the subject of immigration, legal and otherwise, in all of its multiple facets.

Last week was no exception. It contained no less than four polls on the interrelated subjects of presidential politics, national security, and whether or not Americans agree with halting the flow of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East:

All of them are worth perusing; taken collectively they not only provide insights into the nuances of American public opinions, but they also show the differences that wording can make in arriving at poll results. Here is something that caught my eye from the first poll, conducted by the Brookings Institution: "Most notably, Americans who have a highly authoritarian orientation are more than twice as likely as those who have a highly autonomous orientation to say the country needs a leader who is willing to break the rules to set things right (58 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively)."

I suspect that small portion of the survey is a kind of drive-by potshot at Donald Trump, but I find it deeply amusing. Doesn't it actually suggest Barack Obama's approach to immigration, with all of his "executive actions" designed to bend, obviate, or outright ignore federal law, using just his pen and his phone in order to achieve what he and other progressives thought were needed to "set things right"?

This trick of artful phrasing is most notable by juxtaposing the results of the last two polls on the above bullet list, the "Poll on American attitudes on refugees from the Middle East", also from Brookings; and "Poll on a temporary halt to Muslims entering the U.S." from Reuters.

Among other things, in the "Poll on American attitudes on refugees from the Middle East", Shibley Telhami of Brookings posed the following two questions, with these results:

"In general, do you support or oppose the United States taking in refugees from the conflicts in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries after screening them for security risks?" (Emphasis added.) Support: 51 percent; Oppose: 49 percent.

"Assuming extensive background checks are in place to ensure there are not terrorist links, should the U.S. accept refugees from Syria specifically?" (Emphasis added.) Yes: 56 percent; No: 43 percent.

With that kind of front-loading, it was inevitable that the responses leaned toward acceptance. Given the phrasing, I myself, if I didn't know any better, might have supported the theoretical propositions in favor of taking in refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

But if Telhami had been more honest and deleted the phrases that I've highlighted, what would the responses have been? Because the reality is that, as I've observed before, all refugee vetting is an iffy proposition that often relies on self-assertions of the individuals seeking refuge. I've also noted that Syrian vetting in particular will inevitably be fallible because of the ground truths that surround the massive exodus.

But you needn't take my word for it; even the FBI director has acknowledged publicly that there is no way that the U.S. government can vouchsafe the adequacy of the vetting process for aliens in conflict areas, most specifically including Syria and other hot zones in the Middle East such as Iraq or Afghanistan. That is one of the reasons that the White House and its cabinet leaders have so vociferously opposed any legislative proposals from Congress that either the president or the secretaries of the State or Homeland Security departments should sign certifications that refugees are no risk to the public safety or national security as a part of the screening and admission process.

A somewhat more balanced approach is shown by the Reuters poll ("Agree/Disagree: The United States should temporarily stop all Muslims from entering the United States"), which, interestingly, is interactive because by sliding your cursor over the accompanying graphs, you can see shifting public opinions over the timeframe of slightly more than a month. As of June 21, 2016, the breakdown of respondents answering the question was: Disagree: 46.6 percent; Agree: 44.5 percent; Unsure: 8.9 percent.

This is a significantly different result from that of the Brookings survey. What is more, it is entirely possible that the margin of error in the Reuters poll (which isn't shown) was such that the results might in fact weigh slightly in favor of those who agree with temporarily banning Muslim entries.

What we do know is that honest phrasing makes all the difference when seeking honest responses. Else, one is simply indulging oneself in the comforting, but false, reinforcement of one's preferred results. Unfortunately, that is something we see all too often where the white-hot subject of immigration is concerned.