Sept. 16, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Ask a Bad Question, You’ll Get a Bad Answer

I avoid back-and-forth public arguments, believing that after I’ve made my case readers can decide for themselves who and what they believe. But I’m making an exception with this follow-up column.

I recently challenged those who argue that unpopular Republican governors seriously damage the prospects of the eventual GOP presidential nominee in key states such as Florida and Ohio. I have yet to see any evidence that past presidential hopefuls lost states that they should have won because of unpopular governors, and the theory doesn’t make sense if you understand how and why voters make decisions in presidential elections.

But a June 16-19 Public Policy Polling survey of 848 Florida voters, accompanied by a June 24 press release, reiterates the assertion that Florida Gov. Rick Scott is an “unambiguous problem” for the Republican presidential nominee next year.

PPP, of course, is a North Carolina-based Democratic automated interview research firm that was among the first to make the argument, in late May, that Scott will hurt his party’s White House nominee.

I’m not taking issue with the PPP numbers themselves, though it is true that the firm has plenty of critics. Let’s assume for a moment that the data are correct. My problem is with the question and the analysis, both of which leave a lot to be desired.

The 12th question in PPP’s survey asked: “Have Rick Scott’s actions as governor made it more or less likely that you’ll vote for a Republican for president next year, or has it not made a difference?”

The results found that 26 percent said that Scott’s actions as governor of Florida made them more likely to support the Republican nominee, while 40 percent said it made them less likely and 34 percent said it made no difference.

“Voters there aren’t in love with [President Barack Obama] but when they look at the Republican alternatives and they look at what Rick Scott’s done while in office as governor, he starts to not look so bad,” PPP President Dean Debnam said in the press release.

The responses to this single question appear to be the crux of the case for those (including PPP and TalkingPointsMemo.com) who argue that these data confirm a causal connection between Scott’s unpopularity and presidential vote choice next year.

In fact, there are lots of problems with the alleged causality, the question and the analysis, and anyone who spends a lot of time with survey research should know it.

First, speculative “more likely” and “less likely” questions are always dangerous because they sometimes measure the underlying attitude rather than the effect that attitude will have on another decision.

In this case, the question about Scott is likely measuring the public’s evaluation of his job performance, which apparently was not asked by PPP in this survey.

Take a wild guess which voters are most likely to agree that Scott’s actions make them less likely to vote for the Republican nominee for president. Of course, it’s self-identified Democrats — who aren’t going to vote Republican in 2012 anyway. (Oddly, 17 percent of self-identified Democrats in the survey said that Scott’s actions made them more likely to vote Republican in the next presidential election.)

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