Klein: 'Polling on Issues is Next to Useless'

11/18/2009 12:50 pm 12:50:36 | Updated May 25, 2011

Joe Klein posted an item to Time's Swampland blog this morning that is usually the sort of thing I link to in our 'Outliers' feature, but his argument was provocative enough to deserve more emphasis. Fair use and common courtesy prevent me from reproducing the whole thing --it's short and worth reading in full -- but the gist is that Klein noted two results from yesterday's CNN poll, offered the reasonable hypothesis that differently worded questions might have produced different results and offered this conclusion:

The point is, polling on issues is next to useless--especially on issues as emotionally complicated as wars and as technically complicated as health care reform. The only safe conclusion from these particular polls is this: the public has mixed feelings on Afghanistan and health care reform. Brilliant! I have mixed feelings, too. But that's not the way you'll see these played: the headlines will be: Public Opposes Health bill. Public Opposes War.

And the headlines will be ginormous. This is one of my biggest gripes with journalism as it is practiced, particularly on cable news: Polling numbers are "facts." They can be cited with absolute authority, sort of. And so they are given credence beyond all proportion to their actual importance or relevance. But they are not very truthy facts. The are imperfect impressions.

Thoughts anyone?

[Correction: I added "next to" back to the headline. Thanks to Mark L for catching my goof and apologies for the omission].