By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
Suddenly, we may know far less about politics than we thought we knew the necessary but disquieting consequence of new studies that challenge two favored tools for measuring political attitudes and behaviors.
The first challenge comes from the latest survey conducted by the Pew Center for People & the Press. Its data raise serious doubts whether one of the single most publicized question in political polling the American National Election Studies' "trust in government" question really measures how much Americans really trust their government.
The second challenge is directed at the 1996 exit poll conducted by Voter News Service and comes in a thoughtful and disturbing article by Ruy Teixeira of the Economic Policy Institute. Writing in the latest issue of The American Prospect, Teixeira compares the results of the 1996 Voter News Service national exit poll to the results of the recently released U.S. Census study profiling the 1996 voting public.
The discrepancies between VNS and Census data, he argues, casts considerable doubt on the reliability of exit poll results.
Taken together, the Pew study and Teixeira's comparison of exit poll and census data should make most serious students of politics and of polls feel a bit uncomfortable.
The Pew study, directed by Executive Director Andrew Kohut, is the latest effort to discover what has become the political hunt for the Holy Grail: the search for the reasons Americans don't trust their government.
As documented in the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies, public confidence in government has been in decline since the mid-1960s, as measured by responses to this question: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right? Just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?"
Exactly four decades ago, 73 percent of those questioned said they trusted the federal government in Washington to do what's right at least most of the time; in the latest Pew national survey, 34 percent expressed similar confidence.
Disturbing. But do Americans really distrust their government so?
Kohut suggests the answer may be no. He found considerable evidence that "distrust of government is strongly connected to how people feel about the overall state of the nation.... People blame the federal government for the country's problems."
Embedded in the public's answers to the trust-in-government question are public concerns about declining morality and values, as well as other concerns that are only tangentially related, if at all, to government operations.
In short, the trust-in-government question may simply be a measure of national mood, telling us more about how we're feeling about the overall direction of the country and less about our views of the federal government or how it's run.
"A principle finding of this research is that distrust of the federal government is not only about the working of government per se," the Pew research team reported. "A significant part of this distrust reflects how people feel about the nation more generally."
As evidence, he cites the results of a question developed by Princeton social psychologist Hadley Cantril in 1959 and asked by the Gallup Organization through the 1990s. Respondents are asked to consider their hopes and fears for the nation and then rate the state of the nation on a 0-10 scale to represent where the country stands today.
Looking at the trend lines reveals a remarkable association: National mood and trust in government are clearly closely related, rising and falling (but mostly falling) in virtual lock step since the mid-1960s. Similarly, a plot of changes in the murder rate over time also tracks with trust-in-government, suggesting that the results to the trust question are richer but less straightforward than previously assumed.
Other evidence suggests that researchers' traditional views of the trust question must change. While a majority of Americans seemingly express deep mistrust of the federal government, we positively love federal agencies. Big majorities of those surveyed said they had a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and even the much-criticized Department of Education; four in 10 even had a favorable impression of the Internal Revenue Service.
In similar fashion, Teixeira deconstructs VNS exit poll results by comparing the demographics of its election-day sample with the findings of the latest Census study of who voted, which is based on post-election national surveys.
One key discrepancy: the percentage of the 1996 electorate who graduated from college. According to VNS, 43 percent of all Americans who voted for president in 1996 were college graduates. Not true, says the Census study, which found that 29 percent of the electorate were college graduates.
These numbers have consequences, leading Democrats to misread the message of the 1996 election. "In the immediate wake of the election, based on exit polls, the press reported that 43 percent of voters were college graduates. That 'fact' appeared to support the New Democrats' strategy of moderate, values-based politics that appeals to college-educated winners in the new economy."
In fact, Teixeira argues, the 1996 election results should be read exactly the opposite way: "There are many more downscale voters than the exit polls suggest," he writes. It is their voices that demanded to be heard two years ago, but subsequently have been lost in the noise generated by analyses of the exit poll results.
Why the differences? "The answer lies in a chronic bias of the exit polls," Teixeira writes. "The highly educated are much more willing to fill out survey forms in polling places. The resulting overrepresentation of better-educated voters in exit polls is, literally, not to be believed."
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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