- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

With the battle over judgespossibly reaching an apex in the Senate this month, both sides claim strong public support for seemingly contradictory positions. Pundits and politicians alike are making unqualified statements based on data that deserve qualification at best — or maybe should be ignored altogether. Is this just another example of Washington doublespeak? Not really. But it does highlight the critical role of question-wording in eliciting public opinion on complicated policy issues. Excavating just a little below the surface reveals different phraseology which produces stark differences in poll results. Focusing carefully on the language in these surveys helps untangle the contradictory conclusions.

For example, National Public Radio’s Juan Williams said on this past week’s “Fox News Sunday” regarding judicial confirmations, “I don’t know what you’re looking at, but the polls are pretty clear that Republicans are losing this fight in the realm of public opinion.” Perhaps Mr. Williams missed a recent Voter/Consumer Research (VCR) poll (April 17-19, 801 registered voters), which asked “Do you agree or disagree with the following: Even if they disagree with a judge, Senate Democrats should at least allow the President’s nominations to be voted on.”Eighty-onepercent agreed, while only 18 percent disagreed.

If that’s losing, those numbers take the sting out of defeat. Mr. Williams was referencing an ABC News/Washington Post poll (April 21-24, 2005, 1007 adults) that reported only 26 percent of adults said they would “support changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush’s judicial nominees.” A whopping 66 percent said they would “oppose” such an effort.

That question, however, is a bit over the top in terms of its “loaded” words. “Changing the Senate rules” and “making it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush’s judicial nominees” contain more politically-charged verbal baggage than an overstuffed tote packed for a year-long filibuster. When the question about changing procedure is asked differently, the results nearly flip-flop (see charts below). When VCR asked: “And if you could do only one of the following two on this issue, what would you do: Change procedures to make sure the full Senate gets to vote, up or down, on every judge the President nominates or make sure Senate procedures stay in place that allow the minority party to block any judge whose views they disagree with?,” 64 percent supported changing the procedures, while only 28 percent supported maintaining them.

The VCR question, while not perfect, is a fairer way to frame the issue. It keeps the party labels out of the debate. It also asks about changing “procedures,” not “rules,” which is a more accurate characterization of what Senate Republicans contemplate. In the end, citizens will have to carefully evaluate the statements about polls used by politicians and pundits. Considering how some have used public-opinion research in this debate, a cautious eye is in order. But Republican claims that Americans support an up or down vote on judicial nominees appear on strong footing.

Gary J. Andres, vice chairman of research and policy for Dutko Worldwide, is a former White House senior lobbyist.

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