Don’t Believe Every Poll You Read

A majority of Americans say they want smaller government. Do they really mean it?

A recent Rasmussen poll found that 1 in 3 Americans would rather win a Nobel Prize than an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy.

Though there's no way to disprove this peculiar finding, I'm rather confident that it's complete baloney. The average American probably can't name more than one Nobel Prize winner -- if that. Even if many could, it's unlikely they would choose a life in physics or "peace" over being a celebrated actor, musician or television star. Put it this way: Any man who tells you he wants the life of Nobel Prize-winning Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, instead of the life of George Clooney is lying. And that includes Ahmet Uzumcu.

Polls may have been precise in forecasting recent elections (though 2012 pollsters only received an average C-plus grade in a poll conducted by Pew Research Center; we're waiting on a poll that tells us what to think about polls that poll polls), but it's getting difficult to believe much of anything else. Beyond sampling biases or phraseology biases, many recent polls prove that Americans will tell pollsters what they think they think but not how they intend to act. And when it comes to politics, they're also giving small-government types like me false hope.

For instance, 60 percent of Americans in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll claim that if they had the chance to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including their own representative, they would do it. That's the highest percentage reached since the question has been asked.

What they actually mean is that they really hate your elected official. Fact is that the incumbency business is as good as it's ever been. After 2012, the Bloomberg Government Barometer found that though approval of Congress was then at an all-time low, 9 in 10 members of the House and Senate who ran for re-election were successful in their races. That was an improvement over the 85/84 percent incumbent success rate of 2010, which was considered a sweeping "change" election.

Then, a new Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of Americans believe that the major political parties have done such an appalling job representing their constituents that the system is in dire need of a third party.

We might fall for this if we didn't have an extensive, 200-plus-year test case on the subject. The thing is that we already have third parties -- and fourth, fifth and sixth -- and very few people give them even the slightest consideration. Why? Probably because the major parties already represent consensus on both the right and left. Now, many of you might believe that the consensus has pulled too far to the right or left, but in the end, it mostly pulls the party to the middle. Dissatisfaction with the two-party system doesn't mean voters are willing to throw their vote to a third-party candidate, no matter what they tell a pollster.

Polls also reliably find that national debt is one of the primary concerns of the average American voter. When given an array of choices -- education, national security, environment, etc. -- respondents almost always place national debt as one of their top issues.

How worried could they really be, though? When was the last time a politician won an election with a plan that spent less and cut more? When was the last time a majority of Americans supported reforms that would deal with deficits in any meaningful way? Broadly speaking, voters want to tackle the debt problem. But they don't like any of the specifics.

Finally, supposedly 6 in 10 Americans believe that the federal government has too much power -- 1 percentage point from the highest level in September 2010. According to Gallup, at least half of Americans since 2005 have said the government has too much power.

Where is the proof that a majority of Americans want less government? Americans have elected two presidents who have vastly expanded the scope of government, and both of them won re-election rather comfortably. It's likelier that voters view government as having too much power when government is being run by someone else. And that's our biggest problem.

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  • CE||

    A recent Rasmussen poll found that 1 in 3 Americans would rather win a Nobel Prize than an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy.

    Obviously. The Nobel comes with cash, not just a goody basket.

  • fredflinstone||

    Obama got one for peace, I believe al gore got one for his fake climate changes fiasco, the Nobel prize like the white house has been cheapened to a very small amount of worth and meaning or prestige.

  • Bean Counter||

    "I believe the child said something about a CHECK!"

  • Carolynp||

    Mmmm...I also think there's some inherent bias in the poll. The question "Would you prefer to be a selfish, happy pig or Ghandi?" Would probably pull a majority of people lying their heads off. Is the highest rated show on tv right now "Dancing with the Stars" or documentaries about water supply in India?

  • Winston||

    Why are supporters of a fringe party and/or philosophy so concerned about opinion polls?

  • PaulW||

    Perhaps you should read the article. Says something about false hope.

  • Winston||

    I was referring to Welch and Suderman who are concerned about polls all the time.

  • fish_remote||

    The polls I've seen show both Welch and Suderman less concerned with polls and polling than just 6 months ago. The influence of the Tea Party is seen as contributory.

  • ||

    You mean the polls clearly showing that libertopia is upon us and that everyone, especially young occutards, is on the brink of anarcho-capitalism, the reality happening around our lying eyes be damned?

  • fredflinstone||

    all polls are biased and lean twd the person or subject that hey internally favor.

  • CE||

    It's likelier that voters view government as having too much power when government is being run by someone else. And that's our biggest problem.

    So stop letting other people run it.

  • bassjoe||

    The problem with these polls is that the vast majority of Americans have zero clue where their tax dollars actually go. They're fine with smaller government in principle but then when you start asking about the major programs that eat up tax dollars -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Defense, transportation, etc -- they don't want those programs cut. Even farm subsidies are surprisingly popular.

    What they DO want cut are programs that barely qualify as their own line items -- non-military foreign aid is a favorite target for elimination despite being barely a drop in the bucket.

    It doesn't help that idiots like McCain occasionally release "outrageous" lists of "pork" spending and pretend that those things actually add up to anything substantial in the budget.

  • Square||

    I couldn't agree more - it actually seems fairly deliberate the way the two major parties focus on making such hysterical brawls over spending items that in the grand scheme are barely perceivable. Yet if you suggest cutting the rate of growth of military spending by a few percent you're all but certain to be accused of treason.

  • bassjoe||

    McCain's "outrageous pork" lists would rarely add up to 0.1% of the federal budget; all the actuaries working for Congress won't be able to guarantee any budget's accuracy to that level.

    All of that outrage years ago about secretive "pork spending" -- while the process by which these items actually made it into the budget was disgraceful -- had nothing to do with actually reining in spending. It was all just a sideshow.

  • RightNut||

    Eh, I have no problem with starting with smaller items if it means people get more used to actually cutting government/spending. Of course parties that rely on such spending would throw a tantrum(do you really want Big Bird to DIE?!), so its probably more useful to just go for the jugular.

  • Square||

    Except that it's exactly those small items that get people the most riled up and the most distracted from where the actual problems are.

    Meanwhile the spending meter keeps whirling away unabated.

  • ||

    Yeah, better to start with nothing than to start small. Leave in place the $95 billion in duplication because it isn't social security reform. It'd pay for 1/3 of the annual interest on our debt, and is recognized by everybody with a pulse as a wanton and complete waste. But fuck that noise. No sense actually eliminating the comparatively puny $30 billion in pork spending when you could instead focus on the wildly popular budget-buster spending programs that voters have zero support for reforming and leave that $30 billion intact too.

    I wish like hell one of those trifling little drops in the bucket would accidentally land in my bank account.

  • ||

    IMO, If you get people into the mindset of thinking of at least *some* government spending as wasteful, they might eventually get hip to the fact that nearly *all* government spending is wasteful. And in any case, telling them to fuck off about petty waste while they continue to ignore the larger waste as well isn't even an incremental improvement and is only going to fortify their idea that this shit is really "no big deal" in the grand scheme. In terms of spending, you're better off taking the incremental improvement you can actually get.

    Voters are never going to display the same level of moral indignation at the trillion bucks being spent on the social security system that they insist they "paid in to and deserve to collect" (as if SS was a retirement or savings account) and that, in their minds, is the only thing standing between old people living on the streets eating cat food, as they do on, say, a $3 billion appropriation for a dam in Kentucky that they'll never see or benefit from. Eliminating the $3 billion dam appropriation isn't in competition with social security reform. There's no reason to pick one or the other, especially when you can actually get one, but not the other.

  • Habeas Dorkus||

    Yeah. That worked with $300 toilet seats in the 80s, didn't it?
    Ever since then, we've been whacking away at that corruption and spending problem!
    #tryagain

  • ||

    You're absolutely right. Better to cover up the $300 toilet seats and let people sit apathetically waiting for their social security check to roll in because nothing besides SS, Medicare and the DOD are worth concerning yourself about. It's not like 300 dollar toilet seats became a punchline for DOD jokes for the next 30 years after they got pointed out in the 80's and put military waste in the public eye.

    On balance, something is generally considered superior to nothing. 20 years ago, this "little shit" that we're never supposed to worry about or talk about would have constituted the entirety of the annual budget deficit. It's too bad nobody was worrying about it.

    #donothing #allthecoolkidsaredoingit

  • Carolynp||

    Mmmm...we just "shut down" fifteen percent of government, and heck if I noticed it even with ham fisted civil servants actively trying to punish me. Still the polls suggested most US citizens were completely freaked out as if Armageddon were upon us. My own personal poll shows that I am completely disillusioned with my fellow citizens.

  • PaulW||

    This.

    Though, no disrespect to my elders, I'd be fine cutting back on most of this stuff. These are the same people that got us in this mess in the first place, it is only right that they should reap what they sow.

  • fredflinstone||

    McCain is a idiot he totally flip flops on his beliefs in order not to rock the boat so he can gain the greatest retirement benefits later. But that is the way all politicians are so he is no different.

  • RightNut||

    So Americans are mostly smart in theory but dumb in practice? Sounds about right. Its the same disconnect that allows a politician like Obama to claim he's for freedom because he supports gay marriage, well at the same time he is curtailing freedom in every other area of life.

  • JFree||

    Actually most polls agree that I am smart in theory and in practice - but you are questionable on both. The solution, again supported by most polls, is to give me your vote so I can make the decisions you would make if you were like me.

  • Carolynp||

    Even when he advocates for gay marriage he's opposed to freedom. He's not advocating the government have no role in marriage, merely that we "allow" gay couples to marry. Why thank you nanny government.

  • Finchster||

    I'm more concerned that he's likely got no respect for the freedom of bakers, photographers, florists, etc. to decline to cater to a gay wedding.

  • ||

    9 in 10 members of the House and Senate who ran for re-election were successful in their races.

    Terrible metric.

    How many congressmen did not run for re-election? One would think (correctly) that an incumbent would be in the best place to know if he or she does not have a chance of winning re-election. They therefor would tend not to run for re-election.

  • ||

    Also does your metric include incumbents who lost their primary?

  • Paul.||

    That's a good question, but I'd bet even with those things taken into account that the numbers wouldn't swing sharply in the opposite direction.

  • ||

    So instead of 10% it is what? 30%?

    Every 2 years we get a 30% turn over? About 400 new congressmen every 6 years?

    I am not claiming a complete swing...but it is far less hopeless and far more ambiguous then using this lame inaccurate metric that Reason seems to want to pull out of its ass every 6 months or so claims.

  • Finchster||

    When's the last time a congressman didn't run for re-election, or lost his party's primary? The only time that happens is if they're in a major scandal, or they're too old to push the "yay" or "nay" button.

  • Paul.||

    After 2012, the Bloomberg Government Barometer found that though approval of Congress was then at an all-time low, 9 in 10 members of the House and Senate who ran for re-election were successful in their races. That was an improvement over the 85/84 percent incumbent success rate of 2010, which was considered a sweeping "change" election.

    I remember progressives looking askance at me whenever they'd gripe about Jesse Helms, and I'd remind them that he'd sail easily to re-election.

  • Marshall Gill||

    I loved Jesse Helms. Not because I agree with his political positions but because that dude really knew how to troll the Left.

  • Paul.||

    The thing is that we already have third parties -- and fourth, fifth and sixth -- and very few people give them even the slightest consideration. Why?

    Because liberals learned their lesson after voting for Ralph Nader, and conservatives learned this after voting for... after voting for... a guy that lost narrowly. Oh wait, Ross Perot! Yeah, he actually got 17% of the vote.

  • Christophe||

    But that's the presidency. I can totally buy the argument for the most important office in the land.
    The fact that they're not even willing to elect a third party candidate for Senator, Governor, Rep, or city dog-catcher, show that something else is at work.

  • Carolynp||

    Jesse Ventura and Joe Lieberman...

  • Finchster||

    A celebrity vanity candidate and a national political figure who lost his party's primary. Woo-ho.

  • Paul.||

    How worried could they really be, though? When was the last time a politician won an election with a plan that spent less and cut more? When was the last time a majority of Americans supported reforms that would deal with deficits in any meaningful way? Broadly speaking, voters want to tackle the debt problem. But they don't like any of the specifics.

    Yes, David Harsanyi, yessss, let the hate flow through you...

  • thebitterconsumer||

    I'm not sure that most respondents to the poll even understand or agree on what "smaller government" means, but they have a sense of the slogan.

  • thebitterconsumer||

    That's the unfortunate thing about opaque polls.

    http://thebitterconsumer.wordp.....-it-hurts/

  • Brian||

    David Harsanyi seems confused between the difference between what people say they want, and what the system gives them.

    Your fundamental problem is thinking that the system, or elections, actually reflect what people want. They don't. When you get that, it all makes sense.

    So, people would throw all the bums out, if they could. That's not an option. Going into a booth and pulling a lever for someone is an option. When reduced to that level, you shouldn't be surprised that all sorts of craziness comes out of this system.

    When people say they want a third party, they really wish that either the democrats or republicans were a different party. They don't mean that they want to go voting for third parties. The system doesn't give anyone incentive for that. Third parties never take anything in winner-takes-all, and, unless you enjoy losing, why show up? Voting for a third party is equivalent to staying home.

    For god sakes, we just elected Obama and saw the third term of George W. Bush. What more proof do you need? The system is on it's trajectory. Hope you enjoy the ride.

  • ||

    Even when presented with options within the current system that are outside the status quo, people reject any meaningful reform and go with the status quo. Look at the ostensibly anarcho-capitalist Paul Ryan budget that might balance our revenues with our spending half a century in the future if growth jumps to 10% annually and the unemployment rate falls to 3%. You had people literally comparing it to shoving an old lady off of a cliff. Or how about when a person with third party-ish ideas runs on a major party ticket? How'd that work out for Ron Paul on the right and Dennis Kucinich on the left?

    No. The problem isn't that the system isn't giving people the options they want. The problem is that the options they want are fucking unicorns and fairies. People want mutually incompatible things, like total security from any form of potential harm and personal liberty; or like a universal old age pension and health care system and a balanced budget with no taxes. They look at the government as the magical candy man who will somehow make these completely incompatible dreams come true, then get pissed off when reality intrudes.

  • Carolynp||

    Exactly.

  • Thomas O.||

    "The problem is that the options they want are fucking unicorns and fairies."

    Either that or they fear that doing something drastically different will make their lives worse. Better the devil you know...

    (And trust me, I want change as badly as you do. I was worried about the national debt when Reagan was president. And since we've had three decades of a spendaholic Congress, I can't help but have some cynicism.)

  • Joao||

    huh?

    The people do not have enough balls to vote for a third party. Stop making an excuse for democracy.

  • triclops||

    I would take a science Nobel over any of the EGOTs any day of the week. Except for the fact that you have to work much harder for the Nobel, I don't see how they even compare.

  • CE||

    Plus 10 million Swedish krona, over 1.5M USD.

  • Carolynp||

    Yes, there is a one time payout for a Nobel, but people regularly shell out a hundred bucks to see a highly ranked musician. When was the last time people stood in line overnight for tickets to hear the Higgs Boson theorists? If it wasn't for Obama and my deep love of sci fi, I think I couldn't name a nobel winner. I think the point to the study was asking people if they are shallow or deep. I agree with the author, they all say they are deep, but in fact, most people in the US are quite shallow.

  • Joao||

    Time to leave. I hear Chile is most stable.

  • ||

    Oh sure, abandon your ideological homeland of Somalia.

  • GregMax||

    All this polling usually doesn't include the 3/10 of the population who are just fucking blissfully ignorant of anything beside whether the sun is out or not.

  • ||

    New polling indicates that number may be as high as 7/10

  • Will Nonya||

    The bottom line is that people what to be thought of as smart but they aren't afraid of being stupid as long as it's kept private.

  • Will Nonya||

    I think the really frightening ting is that so many can see the right answer and give it lip service but still choose to stick with the status quo when it actually matters.

  • ||

    Better the money-hemorrhaging sink hole you know than a scary, unknown future where the federal government only spends 3.5 trillion dollars instead of the 3.7 it planned.

  • CE||

    Foreign aid is the only line item that a majority of Americans agrees on cutting. At 50 billion per year, it's barely over 1 percent of the budget, but it's not insignificant. Yet Congress never, ever cuts it for some reason.

  • JFree||

    If they cut it this year; then some noodge would just insist on cutting something else next year. If they don't cut it this year, then they can campaign on cutting wastefraudabuse next year.

  • fredflinstone||

    we should cut foreign aid to those that hate so then they can hate us for free.

  • Earlycuyler||

    "The average American probably can't name more than one Nobel Prize winner "

    Krugabie and chocolate Jesus. Pay me, bitches!

  • John Galt||

    Pole dancers, useful and beneficial to have around. Opinion pollsters, not so much so.

  • Jquip||

    TLDR: People lie. A lot.

  • pf||

    I have believed and haunted many a long time. I think it's good points, but also hides the bad, we need to know how to properly use and is seriously the best thing.
    http://parafriv.net/

  • XM||

    A few years ago there was a poll showing that most Americans identified themselves as "conservatives." And that group apparently outnumbered the liberals by something like a 3 to 1 margin. That got the right side of the internet really excited. But then 2008 happened.

    Reason polls ostensibly show Americans (especially the younger generation) becoming more "libertarian" or "independent". Those can be safely ignored too. Election results prove that there is no such trend (except on some issues like drug legalization), and I personally see misconception of libertarianism growing. Those unfamiliar with movement are fed half truths that they're "tea party" or some a faction of the "right wing" that hates anything government.

  • JidaKida||

    Jack Frapp said no way dude.

    www.Got-Privacy.com

  • Eric Bana||

    Head Start is a worthless program. Even the DHHS reported that any benefit to kids vanishes by 1st of 3rd grade. It should be gone.

    Now I was listening to the radio a few days ago, and a Republican Congressman (who has been labeled an extreme Tea Partyer) was talking about reopening the government so important programs could keep going, among them: HEAD F***ING START.

    When members of the extremist party of anarchy thinks Head Start is sacred, what does that tell you?

  • Carolynp||

    Did you see the Daily Show where they raked some hapless Republican over the coals for saying this? They made it sound like the guy was an idiot for saying the benefit vanishes by 3rd grade. Yuck, yuck, yuck...

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  • Anvil||

    One thing I learned in statistics is that any poll can be skewered, the integrity of the poll itself lies with the individual or organization that conducts it.

  • CatherineJLin||

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  • Tamfang||

    When people say they wish for a third party, maybe they mean they wish for an electoral system that wouldn't guarantee a Biparty stranglehold.

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