February 21, 2013
Barack Obama and John Boehner
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Please, pollsters: Stop asking people to predict how they will react to future events that may or may not happen. Just stop it. And poll respondents, if pollsters insist on asking those questions, please just ignore them.

Today saw the new Pew/USA Today poll, which contained lots of perfectly fine questions along with this one about sequester:

 If a deficit reduction agreement is not reached before the deadline, who do you think would be more to blame?

The choices were given as “Republicans in Congress” and “President Obama.”

Ignore that poll question! People are just not very good at predicting how they will react to hypothetical future events. Even if they were good at it in general, they’re really not likely to be good at it in something like this — which involves something that hardly any of the respondents know anything about (which we learn two questions up; about three quarters of respondents admit to having heard “nothing” or “a little” about sequestration; odds that most of the group that does say they’ve heard a lot mostly don’t know very much about it).

All that this question really appears to be doing is echoing approval rates: 51% approve of Obama’s job performance and 49% will blame Republicans for the sequester. Similarly, 25% approve of GOP congressional leaders and 31% will blame the president for the sequester. This is interesting in some ways, but not necessarily predictive. Once sequestration actually happens, news stories about it and perhaps personal experience with it will begin to form people’s opinions of the automatic cuts, Obama and Congress in ways that don’t necessarily have a whole lot to do with their prior expected opinions.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to predict reactions. And in fact, it’s likely that before-the-event opinions of the players are an ingredient in how blame will be apportioned. But it’s not the only ingredient; press coverage matters and is at least to some extent predictable. For example, the president always has the biggest megaphone.) Specific ideas about the parties, and perhaps the way they spin the situation, may matter as well: I think the argument that Republicans are closely tied to spending cuts and will tend to get the blame for unpopular ones regardless of anything else could certainly be relevant.

We can also think, more generally, about whether the event in question is likely to be experienced as a far-off Washington story or as one that has real, visible effects in people’s lives. The former would almost certainly break down along lines of partisanship and other pre-existing preferences; the latter might be less predictable in general.

If you want to know who will get the blame for sequestration, focus on how it will play out — some of which is very predictable, some less so. Asking people who barely know about it to predict who they will blame? A waste of time.