03/18/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Voters Divided (at Best) on Libya No-Fly Zone

It can be difficult to evaluate polling on complicated topics, such as creating a no fly zone in Libya. On the one hand, if not everyone understands a particular concept, it should be explained in the question wording. On the other, perception often being reality, if there is a commonly used phrase, it's important to see how people react to what they think it means. It's a polling obstacle we encountered during the Wisconsin collective bargaining debate, and it's one we see with the developing situation in Libya.

Three recent national polls, all conducted around the same time, show both division and inconsistency. Breaking down the question wording suggests to me two different causes of this variation. First, the actual description of what's involved in a no fly zone, and second, the nature of US involvement.


Take the CNN/ORC poll, for example, which showed majority support for a no fly zone. Their question wording was quite detailed in its description of the operation. And importantly, it both specified "the US and other countries" yet "no US ground troops would be involved." Setting these boundaries are likely very important to voters.

The Pew survey, by contrast, has the lowest initial support for a no fly zone. Its description of the action is very short: "enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya." And while the instructions ask about "the US and its allies," the question is one of a list of a variety of military actions, perhaps making a no fly zone seem like the beginning of a slippery slope. It's also introduced by a question about whether the US has a responsibility to take action in Libya, a concept with which voters clearly disagree (63% "US does not have this responsibility"). I suspect this question primed respondents to think negatively about our involvement in the region.

The Washington Post/ABC survey experiments with a few different descriptions of a no fly zone, resulting in different levels of support. Those asked a question about "using US military aircraft to create" a no fly zone were much less supportive than those asked about "participation in creating" such involvement. A follow-up question among supporters gives more detail, such as "bombing attacks on anti-aircraft positions" and "requires continuous air controls." After this question, a quarter of supporters become opponents, and overall support falls to the lowest of the three surveys.

As more polling emerges, and the situation in Libya evolves further, look at how the question wording defines our engagement. What exactly is involved in a no fly zone? And what exactly is our role? These are not just questions for poll-drafters, but clearly questions on the American public's mind as well.

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