January 27, 2014
By John Zogby
My good friend and colleague Scott Rasmussen came out with an interesting finding just this past week. His new poll found that 74% of likely voters believe that abortion is “morally wrong.” I don’t dispute that finding one bit, but I sure have a lot to say about what it could mean and what it may (or may not )portend at the ballot box in 2014.
To be sure, most Americans do not love abortions. But we humans are not one dimensional beings. Back in 1994 when I was polling the New York gubernatorial race featuring Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, I asked whether or not New Yorkers believed that terminating a fetus was “tantamount to manslaughter”. About three in five (59%) agreed. Yet, just five questions later, almost as many – 57%– agreed that on matters pertaining to abortion, a woman has a right to choose. Observers who were either locked in ideological myopia or just not able to understand polls (usually both!) concluded that many people are just fickle or stupid. Or, as I always have heard when someone doesn’t like a polling result, the question or sample must have been flawed. Short answer: none of the above.
Regardless of how much people may know about an issue, they respond to values that they have grown up with and cherish. And, in the four decades I have been doing and interpreting polls, I have learned that many people (myself included) have conflicting values on important issues. Why can’t a majority hate abortion, feel it is immoral or even murder, yet also feel deep down that such an important decision should be left to a woman and her physician?
Americans hate senseless school shootings but feel that law-abiding citizens should not be denied a constitutional right to own a firearm. And they know that health care is expensive and insurance coverage should be universal, but hate government “intrusiveness”. Or they know deep down that some personal liberties must be sacrificed to secure ourselves against a terrorist attack but fear that Big Brother has already invaded our lives.
What ideologues miss is that many issues are not black and white. There are many people who can see both sides, who want reasonable explanations and need meaningful symbols and language to help them make decisions. This is why campaigns are so important. Done well, a media soundbite or text message or bumper sticker can provide some clarity. And aren’t we all looking for some clarity?
In addition to conflicting values, I have also learned that polls are not simply about majorities and pluralities. More importantly, good polling needs to reflect intensities. If 45% feel a president is doing a good job but 40% strongly disapprove or just hate his guts, that 40% is a much more important barometric reading and holds the key to whether or not that president can succeed.
It matters little that a majority may favor a gun control measure if the intensity is on the side of gun advocates. The latter will make it an issue, write letters, generate buzz, attend a town meeting, go to the polls and get others to vote as well.
So back to the Rasmussen Poll. That 74% figure is compelling but it doesn’t tell the whole story because today the intensity is on the side of those who are pro-choice. While the nation has been almost evenly split on abortion since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the intensity has switched sides several times since then. I recall in 1998 when there were several very close U.S. Senate races in the closing weeks of the campaign. Liberals were not happy with perceived moderate Democrats like Charles Schumer of New York and John Edwards of North Carolina. A couple of weeks before the election, an ob-gyn who had performed abortions in Niagara Falls, NY by the name of Barnet Slepian was murdered right in his home and liberals went into shock. I saw liberal support intensify as Democrats won most of those close races. A few years later, intensity shifted as pro-life forces were able to make a strong and visible case against “partial birth” or late-term abortions. In 2012, many liberals and young women were disappointed in President Barack Obama, but the issue of choice and contraception turned them out to vote in significant numbers – against the GOP even more than for Mr. Obama.
When reading about poll results, always remember that we pollsters are polling real people not just numbers.