August 14, 2013
(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Wow: Heritage treats Republican members of Congress as the most gullible of rubes:

House members shouldn’t worry about losing their seats if they oppose spending bills that contain Obamacare funding, conservatives said Wednesday.

The blame for a potential government shutdown when the current spending bill expires Sept. 30 over the issue of stripping out funding for the Affordable Care Act would be spread among congressional Republicans, Democrats and President Barack Obama, according to a poll by GOP-leaning Basswood Research commissioned by Heritage Action for American.

Yes, that’s right. Heritage is asking Republicans in Congress to base their choices about the next fiscal showdown on a partisan poll of GOP House districts. So we have a loaded sample asked loaded questions — and Republican politicians are supposed to stake their careers on it? Really, any politician who would take this sort of stuff seriously deserves whatever he or she gets.

But while the subject is on the table: Polling, even very good polling, is exactly the wrong way to go about figuring out the electoral effects of a government shutdown or any similar confrontation. There’s no point in asking people who they would blame if this happened, because people are extremely poor predictors of their own reactions to complex political fights … well, to be blunt, people are poor predictors of their own reactions to most things, at least beyond the obvious (and we’re not even all that good on the obvious ones, either). But for this one, there’s no way for anyone to know how they would react because there’s no way to know how the events would play out and be interpreted. I suppose dedicated partisans know who they would blame for a shutdown — but you don’t need a poll to know that.

And this is a two-step reaction, right? How will people react to a shutdown, and then how will that reaction affect their vote? On that second one, voters are notoriously bad at reporting what affected their vote even after the fact; there’s no way that their prospective, speculative guesses at their future reasoning should be taken seriously. It’s possible that there might be something useful in a very good survey, but taking people’s answers at face value is a big mistake.

We may see plenty of non-partisan firms running these polls in the weeks leading up to a possible showdown. My advice? Ignore those polls. Instead, try to figure out how the press is likely to cover what happens. If you can predict that, then you’ll have something. Some things just aren’t worth pre-polling.