NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Surveys Show Soft Support For Whatever

August 25, 2000

Given the 17-point movement within a matter of days in some polls of voters' presidential preferences, one might wonder how reliable an indicator of individuals' actual beliefs and preferences such surveys are.

Political scientist Paul Sniderman of the University of California at Berkeley has an explanation of why public opinion seems to shift so easily and often. Just a request to "think again" about their answer will cause a significant number of people to alter their response, says Sniderman.

  • For example, a survey he designed in the late 1990s in the Netherlands asked people if they supported a job-training program.
  • Those who did were asked a follow-up question that was either substantive (suggesting the program would require extra money from taxpayers) or vague and virtually content-free ("Considering the complications that can develop in an area like this, do you want to change your mind?").
  • One in three changed their minds when asked the follow up question, with nearly as many abandoning their positions when challenged by an essentially empty phrase as when they heard the tax argument.

Similarly, the Washington Post recently asked adults whether they favored a plan to give parents of children in poor-quality schools $2,500 vouchers to send each child to a private or another public school. Regardless of their answer, they were then asked if they would change their answer, considering "the complexity and uncertainty of problems" in the U.S. One in five promptly abandoned their positions, with equal proportions of supporters and opponents changing their minds.

Source: Richard Morin (Universal Press Syndicate), "Gauging the Firmness of Political Beliefs," Unconventional Wisdom, Dallas Morning News, August 21, 2000.

 

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