Economy or Terrorism? Some Polls Just Don’t Get to the Bottom of It

Posted September 30, 2003 at 3:24pm

In the early September Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 44 percent said the economy and taxes would matter most to their 2004 vote, 19 percent said Iraq and the war on terror would, and 30 percent volunteered “both equally.” [IMGCAP(1)]

When Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek asked people Sept. 25-26 what would be more important in determining their vote for president next year, 50 percent chose the economy and jobs and 29 percent terrorism and homeland security. Seventeen percent volunteered “both equally.”

In the Sept. 17-22 Pew Research Center poll, 50 percent said it was more important for President Bush to focus on the economy and 32 percent the war on terrorism. Fifteen percent volunteered “both.” In five other repetitions of the Pew question since August 2002, between 13 percent and 22 percent volunteered the response “both.”

I have rule of thumb when I read polls: If a volunteered response is more than 15 percent, the question isn’t capturing true feelings.

Asking people to choose one thing or the other when both are important presents a false choice. The information we get from these polls is useful, but it is not complete. It’s like the old polling question about whether people want clean air or jobs. Americans want both. Today the economy is on the front burner at a full boil, but terrorism is simmering on a back burner.

The Supreme Court. In early September, 52 percent of those surveyed by Gallup approved of the way the Supreme Court was handling its job. Thirty-eight percent disapproved. In September 2002 and July 2003, 60 percent and 59 percent, respectively, approved.

But the subgroup responses are somewhat puzzling. In the new poll, Republicans and independents were slightly more positive about the court than the nation as a whole (55 percent and 57 percent approved, respectively). But approval plummeted among Democrats — to 45 percent, down significantly from 59 percent in the July poll. An anomaly? We await more polls.

Gay Marriage. I haven’t seen enough data yet to know whether attitudes toward homosexual marriage have changed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in June. The polls at this point suggest that opinion hasn’t moved at all on the question of gay marriage.

In a Gallup poll taken right after the decision, 39 percent said marriages between gay men and lesbians should be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage. Fifty-five percent were opposed. In January, those numbers were 34 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

In the late June-early July Princeton Survey Research Associates poll for Pew, 38 percent favored allowing gay men and lesbians to marry legally and 53 percent were opposed. In March, those responses were 35 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

In the mid-July Harris/Time/CNN poll, 33 percent said marriages between gays should be recognized as legal by the law; 60 percent said they should not. The last time this question was asked, in 1998, 29 percent said they should be recognized as legal and 64 percent said they should not.

In mid-August, Fox News and Opinion Dynamics asked a question with a different emphasis. When asked for their personal view, 26 percent said they favored same-sex marriage, but 62 percent opposed it.

In a poll conducted soon after the Lawrence decision, 40 percent of Californians said “gay rights leaders have been trying to push too fast.” Forty-four percent in this Field Poll said they were moving at about the right speed, and 5 percent said they were pushing too slowly.

Once again, opinion doesn’t seem to have moved much. In 1997, 41 percent said the leaders were pushing too fast, 40 percent that their efforts were about right and 6 percent too slow.

As for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, in an early September ABC News question, 37 percent said it should be legal for gay couples to marry and 55 percent said it should be illegal. Of the latter group, 36 percent said it was worth amending the Constitution to make it illegal (60 percent said it was not).

Several other questions about an amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman show more in favor than opposed (50 percent to 45 percent in a July Gallup poll, 54 percent to 42 percent in an August Associated Press poll, and 58 percent to 34 percent in an August Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll).

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.