Americans are deeply divided over whether to bomb the kingdom of Agrabah, according to a new poll, with Republicans more likely to be in favor and Democrats tending to be opposed.
But here's the problem: "Agrabah" happens to be the fictional home of Aladdin.
Public Policy Polling, a prominent Democratic-leaning polling firm, included the question in its most recent national poll. (Let's not forget that this is the same firm that listed “Deez Nuts” as a candidate on a North Carolina poll.)
Over half of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans answered the Agrabah question. Thirty percent of Republican primary voters were in favor of bombing the fictional location, while 13 percent were opposed. Among Democrats, 19 percent were in favor and 36 percent were opposed.
Obviously, it's both funny and a little worrisome to see so many people taking a stance on military action against Disney villains -- although, hey, Jafar is pretty evil. Some people polled might have recognized the fictional name and answered in jest, but most likely did not. Either way, they only had the option of replying that they supported, opposed, or were "not sure" about bombing Agrabah, and the majority of respondents said they weren't sure.
The poll also asked questions about actual policies toward Muslims -- including whether they should be registered in the United States and whether mosques should be shut down. Respondents were also asked if they supported or opposed the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II in retrospect.
What PPP is demonstrating with this question is that people often respond to polls without knowing much, or anything, about a topic. And pollsters often ask about specific policy questions that Americans haven't given much thought to.
Yet many respondents feel as though they should have an answer, either because they don't want to seem uninformed or because they're trying to do a good job of completing the poll. So they end up trying to parse out an answer in good faith, relying on whatever clues the question offers, whether it's a general sentiment (if you think the U.S. should be more militarily aggressive in general, you're more likely to back a planned bombing campaign) or a partisan cue (if the politicians you like support something, you're likely to think it's a good idea as well.)
Take the 1975 Public Affairs Act, for example. You might not remember it, because it doesn't actually exist. Still, survey researchers have found that this doesn't stop a significant fraction of Americans from weighing in on it anyway, along party lines. When respondents were told President Barack Obama wanted to repeal the fictitious law, Republicans were far more likely to disagree with him; when Democrats heard the GOP was behind the repeal effort, they protested much more.
This doesn't necessarily mean the survey-takers are stupid or ignorant. Most people have better things to do with their day than read up on arcane policy proposals, and few people assume that pollsters are trying to trick them.
But this does serve as a reminder that it's difficult to accurately measure public opinion on real issues. Polling results on Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslim visitors, for instance, varied widely depending on the information included in the question. Surveys about foreign conflicts, which members of the U.S. public tend not to follow closely, often produce opinions that are muddled at best.
When a poll question puts someone on the spot, there's a chance they'll end up expressing an opinion whether they have really thought it out or not, and whether it’s about Syria or Agrabah.
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