In defense of “dumb” poll questions

September 12, 2012

On Tuesday morning, we wrote about a question in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked: "On a ship in a storm, who would you rather have as the captain?"

The response -- via Twitter, Facebook and even  email (yes, people still email sometimes) -- was overwhelming and (stunningly, at least to us) negative. And it went something like this: "Who cares about who the better ship captain is? This has NOTHING to do with the election."

Ditto for other questions in the Post-ABC poll like "who do you think would be the more loyal friend" and "who would you rather take care of you when you're sick".

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. (At least that's what Fix Mom always told us.) That said, if you think that asking these sort of unorthodox questions is a waste of time, you are missing an important part of how people make up their minds when it comes to who to support for president.

We've long maintained that the vote for president, more so than any other vote, is a feel vote.  That is, the up-for-grabs voters don't simply go to the websites of the two candidates, make a check next to every issue they agree with Obama or Romney on and then add up the columns -- voting for whichever of the two men had more checks to his  name.  If they did, George Bush wouldn't likely have beaten either Al Gore or John Kerry.

(To be clear: Lots of partisans do just that which is why, of course, they are partisans.)

The vote for president is governed far more (or at least as much) by intangibles as it is by tangibles. Which is why we think that questions like "who do you want to be captain of a ship in rough waters" is far more insightful in understanding how people  perceive the two men than asking whether the public approves or disapproves of them (for the billionth time). (The Post-ABC poll, by the by, did ask all sorts of traditional questions including the candidate approval one. The "ship captain" question was a small part of a long, deep and substantive poll.)

That majorities think Obama would be a better friend and also think he would be the superior dinner companion is a telling indicator of why the president remains (slightly) in the lead despite the ongoing struggles of the economy.

That the "captain of the ship" question is essentially tied is also telling -- proof that Romney hasn't closed the deal on the idea that his skillset is uniquely suited to the current economic challenges while Obama's is not.

Call non-traditional polling questions dumb if you like. We'll keep asking them and analyzing the results for clues about what the publicn really thinks about the two men running for the highest office in the land.

So there.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · September 12, 2012