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Sunday, December 07, 2008
Sour Grapes: Former Talk Radio Jock Uses Flawed Methodology to Claim That Obama Voters are Ignorant
John Ziegler is a former LA talk radio jock. I didn't find his show remotely interesting but to be fair, there were times in which he showed that he wasn't a complete Rush clone (I noted on this blog how, to his credit, Ziegler strayed from the right's dogma on Terry Schiavo).
To his discredit, Ziegler is part of the right's attempt to delegitimize Obama's victory by claiming that Obama's supporters are uninformed and stupid. Ziegler commissioned a poll by Zogby International that asked Obama and McCain supporters twelve questions. Ziegler has a web site and a YouTube video to support the contention that based on the results of the survey, McCain supporters were more informed than Obama supporters. I looked at the twelve questions and found that several of them have serious problems in wording and/or reliability and validity. The survey is so fatally flawed that had a first year graduate student in sociology or political science used similar methodology in a class project, the student would have deserved a failing grade (disclosure: I have taken two graduate-level research methodology courses). In short, the survey is a joke. Here are the questions from the original Zogby survey Ziegler commissioned:
1. Before this past election, which political party controlled both houses of congress?
2. Which candidate could not say how many houses they own?
3. Which candidate said they could see Russia from their house?
4. Which candidate had to quit a previous political campaign because they were found to have plagiarized a speech?
5. Which candidate won their first election by getting all of their opponents kicked off the ballot?
6. Which candidate wore clothes that their political party reportedly spent $150,000 on?
7. Which candidate currently has a pregnant teenage daughter?
8. Which candidate said that Obama would be tested in his first six months as president by a generated international crisis?
9. Which candidate claimed to have campaigned in 57 states?
10. Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket?
11. Which candidate said that the government should redistribute the wealth?
12. Which candidate started their political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground?
Question 1 is problematic because of misleading wording. The awkward wording might have led one to believe that the question is referring to prior to the 2006 elections. It's not the worst question in the world but the wording could have been better.
Questions 5, 10, 11, and 12 are fatally flawed. 1) they are examples of questions with invalid premises (the Do-you-still-beat-your-wife? fallacy). 2) Answering them "correctly" doesn't measure anything other than a person's likelihood of being exposed to right-wing media outlets that devoted a lot of time harping on the disinformation in the premises of the questions.
Question 5: Which candidate won their first election by getting all of their opponents kicked off the ballot? Problem: the premise is a right wing talking point. It wasn't a matter of Obama kicking his opponents off the ballot, there was evidence that the opponents signatures were forged or were by made by ineligible voters. Despite the falsity of the claim that Obama kicked these candidates off the ballot, this tendentious talking point was a staple of right-wing talk radio and the Fox News Channel during the election campaign. Answering it "correctly" is only a measure of how much you listen to wing-nut media outlets.
Question 10: Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket? This is a meaningless tendentious question. Here is what Obama said:
So, if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It's just that, it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel, and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing that I've said, with a respect to coal -- I haven't been some coal booster -- what I have said is, that, for us to take coal off the table as a ideological matter, as opposed to saying, if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it. You know, that I think is the right approach.The American right took that nuanced statement to claim that Obama said he wanted to bankrupt the coal industry. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Obama will cause energy rates to skyrocket--unless, of course, you believe right-wing media outlets who were spinning Obama's words.
Question 11; Which candidate said that the government should redistribute the wealth? Same principle as the previous two questions. It's meaningless. If you believe in a progressive income tax (both Obama and McCain support this), you believe in redistributing the wealth. The Bush administration's no-bid contracts to their corporate friends like Haliburton as well as their anti-union policies were wealth redistribution policies, regressive ones. This is a biased question that has no place in a meaningful survey.
Question 12: Which candidate started their political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground? Pure right-wing propaganda. Obama started his political career "when he got the backing of then state Sen. Alice Palmer (D-Chicago), who wanted him to replace her as she was planning a run for Congress. Palmer's backing gave him entrée into local influential political circles." Again, answering this question "correctly" only measures how much one listens to Hannity and/or watch Fox News. These questions don't demonstrate political knowledge but one's exposure to right-wing talking points and spin.
Questions 4, 8, and 9 are technically correct but they are not good indicators of how well a citizen is informed. True, Obama said he campaigned in 57 states--the guy misspoke. One can't reasonably think that Obama didn't know that there are 50 U.S. states; it's a non-story. It's a trivial matter that was relentlessly hyped on talk radio and on the fair-and-balanced channel. Like question 9, questions 4 and 8 pertain to negative but relatively trivial information given a lot of play on right-wing media outlets.
I could go on with several of the other questions but I think my point has been made: this survey was fatally flawed and worse than worthless. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel to use survey research to suggest that McCain voters are dumbasses. All it would take would be a survey comparing McCain and Obama voters on the following questions: 1) Do you believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old? 2) Do you believe that human beings coexisted with dinosaurs? 3) Do you believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for the murder of Vince Foster?
This is nothing more than part of the social science component of the radical right's war on science. Ziegler has joined other hacks (such as John Lott/Mary Roush, Gabriel Nahas, Charles Murray, and Paul Cameron) who have used phony social science findings to support reactionary public policies.
Addendum: Several critics of Ziegler's work referred to the survey as a "push poll." Was Ziegler's survey a push poll? Technically no. A push poll is a political dirty trick in which operatives falsely claiming to work for a polling firm call potential voters and falsely claim to be collecting data for a survey and ask the person jaundiced questions about a political opponent in order to reduce support for the opponent; there is no attempt to find a representative sample or collect data. On the other hand, Ziegler used a polling firm to collect (flawed) data to support his argument. Ziegler used misleading and meaningless questions as well as questions with false premises. Ziegler's poll is similar to the survey questions that Fox News chief Roger Ailes included in a Fox New/Opinion Dynamics poll in March after MoveOn.org and other grassroots groups put pressure on the Democratic Party presidential candidates to cancel the debate sponsored by Fox News. Here is one of the leading questions in the poll:
36. After the 2004 presidential election, the president of the left-wing Moveon.org political action committee made the following comment about the Democratic Party, "In the last year, grassroots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the Party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive. Now it's our Party: we bought it, we own it and we're going to take it back." Do you think the Democratic Party should allow a grassroots organization like Moveon.org to take it over or should it resist this type of takeover?What Ziegler's phony survey and push polling have in common is that they both are an affront to legitimate survey research.