The Pew Research Center does some regular polling on a number of issues. In particular, they like to gauge the public’s interest in various topics and match that up against the total hours of media coverage the topic is given. The idea is to measure the extent to which the media is actually covering what people want to see.

And its a good idea. One of the fall-back excuses for the worst excesses in lurid media coverage of Casey Anthony-type subjects is that “people want to see this, so we have to show it.” The polling data often shows that the stated desire of their audience is often at odds with this assertion.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Behavioral scientists will tell you that the minute someone is aware they’re being observed, their behavior changes. Polling is inherently observational and requires a human operator to ask questions. So how do we know that what people say they want to watch on the news is the same as what they actually want?

We don’t. In fact, polling science calls this a response bias: the tendency for respondents to answer with what they think the person on the other end of the phone call wants to hear rather than what they actually feel.

With this in mind, its hard to imagine how a poll asking people what they want to hear in the news could possibly be accurate in a literal sense. Nobody wants to read bad news, but many of us feel the obligation to at least appear concerned about things like the economy.

Here at DFE, I recently did a survey of my audience and asked about the various subjects I’ve previously covered. Respondents were asked to tell me whether they’d like to read more or less of a given subject. There are a number of reasons that a poll like this is not representative, starting with the fact that everyone who responded had me in common: they all like the same website/Twitter feed, ergo they have a specific bias that would likely show up in polling.

The poll itself was entirely non-compulsory, allowing respondents to skip any questions they liked. Which means of course that it suffers from the voluntary response bias: the only people who participate are people who really wanted to, therefore have strong opinions on the questions they answered. On the other hand, the poll I conducted was done online, so it didn’t suffer the response bias inherent in person-to-person contact. So, while a poll of this nature is far from scientific, it does I think point pretty clearly at people’s actual opinions more than their perception of the poll’s bias.

And the response was overwhelmingly negative on economic news. This jibes with what I’ve seen in my click-through rate: the rate at which people click on the links I’ve posted to Twitter and FaceBook by day, which showed very weak numbers when I posted economic news. And while following me on Twitter is non-compulsory, responding to the survey was non-compulsory and answering specific questions is non-compulsory, it should be noted that I’ve covered economic news for nearly a year on every single Monday. None of my followers were unfamiliar with what I was posting, but they followed me anyway.

All of this is fodder for plenty of arguments and debates, to be sure. Do people really want to hear the economic bad news? Does my poll shed any usable light on the subject? What about the veracity of the Pew poll? Any way you come down on the subject, I think its important to consider these questions when viewing the results of any poll, let alone the below Pew Research poll. Mainstream news services have the unfortunate tendency to just post the data without critical analysis – or worse, with the invested biases of politicians.

Troubled Economy Top Story for Public and Media | Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

If I told you Conservatives weren’t paying much attention to the state of our environment, would you be surprised? If I told you Liberals weren’t paying very much attention to the state of our Faith Based Initiatives, would you clutch the pearls in horror and confusion? I suspect not.

Why, then, does Gallup not notice the difference between those who say they’re watching the debt debates “very closely” and those who are watching “somewhat closely” as what they are: Conservatives and Liberals, respectively.

The problem isn’t just that they haven’t broken down the “watching closely” and “somewhat closely” groups down by Party affiliation, but that without this detail, we’re left with the impression that “informed minds think we should not raise the debt limit.” Regardless of where you come down politically on the issue, the implication based on poll numbers is faulty.

Attention to Debt Ceiling Debate Doesnt Affect Policy Views.

This 16-percentage-point margin against raising the debt limit among the most attentive Americans is similar to the 20-point margin among those following the matter somewhat closely, 48% vs. 28%. Those not following the issue closely are also more likely to want their member of Congress to vote against raising the debt limit than for it; however, the majority, 59%, have no opinion.

I flagged this Marist poll earlier this morning. Now it appears that the Rochester @dandc has opted to guilelessly report on the same poll, showing that New Yorkers are “split” on the issue of hydrofracking:

State is split over use of fracking, poll finds | Democrat and Chronicle | democratandchronicle.com.

The trouble is: how many people actually know what hydrofracking is and how many does this issue actually affect? My guess is that many of the respondents live somewhere that fracking will almost certainly never occur. How can we expect them to have an informed opinion on an issue that doesn’t affect them? Their opinions matter as a matter of politics, perhaps. But as a matter of substance? Not so much.

Both the original Marist poll and the above-linked article concede that in Upstate, where the fracking plans are most prevalent, fracking appears to be much less popular. Yet they both choose to lead with the less-illuminating title. Why?

Pew Research just released polling data on their People Press website indicating that the general consensus among those polled seems to be that they’re hearing less bad news about the jobs situation, but more bad news about prices:

Public Sees Better News about Jobs, But Not Prices | Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Certainly, that squares with reality: the price of just about everything is going up and if the overall job market hasn’t gotten much better, it hasn’t gotten the same bad press.

But for Obama, its those prices – specifically oil prices – that he has to worry about for 2012. I would submit that oil prices are a lot more deleterious to Republican incumbent chances than they are to Democratic ones, but prices this bad are just toxic for anyone.

Nauseating, I know. But the pollsters are out in force today, testing the pulse of Americans – those willing to sit on the phone and answer survey questions, at least – for the likelihood of a second Obama term. Pew and Quinnipiac both have polling data released today, both showing roughly the same thing, but with remarkably different editorial conclusions.

Pew has a poll showing that less than fifty percent of the public would like to see the president elected to a second term, but points out that previous presidents have faired little better. Quinnipiac, for its part, has a poll showing that about fifty percent believes the president does not “deserve” a second term. Note that this is not what the question asked, exactly, its just what the editor chose to use in the summary. They point out that this is his lowest number since they’ve been tracking it and also that he loses by a slim margin to an Unnamed Republican Candidate.

So the numbers are around fifty percent with almost two years left to decide. My expert opinion is that “these numbers are likely to change.”

I had a litte fun with the silliness of this poll overall: what is the purpose of asking Americans if they are in favour of negative things without a relative choice to make? Taxes and service cuts do not live in bubbles, they’re a part of the whole. But I’ve gone over that one to death.

Americans’ Message to States: Cut, Don’t Tax and Borrow.

What is interesting in the poll is the reaction to the question of cutting state workers’ benefits, an idea which is roundly rejected by a solid eleven-point majority. It seems like the situation in Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere has stiffened Americans’ resolve on that count, which is nice to see.

Once again, just watching the same poll data over and over again: we want to solve what we believe are budget problems, but we don’t want to actually take any of the steps that are being presented as options:

Two in Three in U.S. Say Their State is in a Budget Crisis.

There are a number of issues with the entire concept of this article. For example, two in three people in the US think their state is in a budget crisis. Well, how many of them were actually right? Of those polled, how many lived in states with actual budget crises and how many were not?

This strikes me as a quantitative question with a right or wrong answer. That two in three Americans see it the same way is probably telling in its own right: it seems like the Republican message is getting through, if not the appetite for their remedies. But there is a real baseline here to compare and contrast with, so why is that not included in the report?

The other problem is that, as is the typical blind-spot for polls, multiple choice questions leave us with only one predefined set of answers. Gallup to their credit chose the more common methods of budget cutting, but the choices were all budget cuts. And the problem with that is: we didn’t need to cut the budgets when we were making money in this country. Nowhere in there is the option to “put people back to work and raise tax revenue,” though this is in reality the only measure that works.

I’m not arguing that budgets can’t be cut, that bloat doesn’t happen, that success doesn’t hide a multitude of sin. I’m saying success hides a multitude of sin.

I find surveys, polls and all things opinion as fascinating as anyone, but there is really a problem when we begin to take the voice voter as so expressed too seriously.

For example, if you were asked if you would rather have root canal surgery or be dunked naked into a pool full of puppies, you are much more likely to want to get the canine tickle fest. Its only natural. And if you’re asked if you’d rather see someone else lose their job, raise state revenue by leeching off the addicted, or pay more in taxes, I don’t think anyone is going to be shocked that the most common anonymous answer is “no new taxes.”

So, here we have yet another example. Quinnipiac conducted a state-wide survey in Pennsylvania, asking among other questions, how the state’s revenue problems might best be eased. Raising taxes, legalizing gambling in the state and laying off workers are all presented separately as options. Entirely unsurprisingly, the results are a tortured amalgam of “no new taxes.” No shit, really?

It might (I stress might, because I am hardly an expert in the ways of thinking) be better if they asked, “laying off workers would save X dollars but mean not getting X services. Raising taxes by X percent would raise the average income by X amount. Which would you prefer?” But of course, they do not ask that kind of question.

… I’m trying to figure out exactly how to react to this headline, “Obama’s Approval Rating on Deficit Sinks to New Low.”

The headline isn’t wrong: President Obama’s approval rating on the budget deficit has fallen. On the other hand, nearly every other trend line goes up. The Gallup article in question says as much, as does another poll released today from Zogby. So, which is the story? Technically, I suppose, if all other metrics are trending up at a consistent rate, that’s not news: he’s been doing better since the SOTU. Not news, that is, if you think in terms of moment-to-moment politics.

But in terms of the overall two-year average, its the numbers that are improving that are the news: his approval ratings hit the skids almost immediately from taking office. That the general trend is in the opposite direction seems more relevant when you look at the whole picture.

I don’t really think poll numbers are relevant, except to the extent that they get used as cudgels in political fights. Unfortunately, everything these days is a political fight – right down to ICBM treaties with Russia – so the political damage of skewed headlines cannot be entirely discounted. But, they got my dumb ass to click on the link, so I suppose if the goal was CTR and not FYI, that’s game-set-match.

Republicans don’t get it. Democrats only barely get it.

According to a new ABC/Washington Post poll, even with a “penalty tax” on health care benefits, a majority of Americans still support a public-option health care system:

Thinking about health care, one proposal to insure nearly everyone would require all Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty on their income tax, excluding those with lower incomes. It would require most employers to offer health coverage or pay a fee. There would be a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. And income taxes on people earning more than 280-thousand dollars a year would be raised to help fund the program. Taken together, would you support or oppose this plan? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

54% Support, 43% Oppose

I would not call this a ringing endorsement of the benefits taxation plan. It *is* an endorsement for health care reform – and even for the public option – because any proposal that costs money generally drops like a stone in the polls. Any plan that can survive the word “taxes” in a poll and stay above fifty percent is practically immortal.

Other news in that poll is that Obama’s numbers are definitively dropping. Of course they are: he owns the economy and the economy is in the public toilet. My prediction: expect him to get to fifty percent and possibly even lower by the end of the year, followed by an economic recovery and soaring new heights for his poll numbers by mid-terms.

Apparently, seventy percent of Republicans would support Sarah Palin for president, and this number is being touted by people from Red State and other places as a reason that Palin should not be discounted.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but if less than 25% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans right now, seventy percent of twenty five percent doesn’t really seem like a very compelling number. Does it?