Doctoring the Numbers

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A poll on the website of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) (that's Bill Frist M.D., lest you forget that the senator is also a member of the hallowed medical profession) proves that in the halls of Congress nothing, not even a meaningless web survey, is too petty to merit deception.

See, when Atrios linked to a question asking visitors "Should the President's nominees to the federal bench be allowed an up or down vote on confirmation as specified in the Constitution?", the liberal weblogger's readers began voting "no" in overwhelming numbers. Uh-oh.

So Frist's web folk changed the wording to make it a little more obvious which answer they considered the "right" one. The revised question asked: "Should the Senate exercise its Constitutional duty to provide the President's judicial nominees with an up or down vote?"

Unfortunately, the nays still had it by a wide margin—an even wider margin at some points, in fact. So what did they do this time? Instead of just pulling the poll altogether—which would be craven, but not grossly dishonest—the majority leader's webfolk changed the question to reverse the meaning of the "yes" and "no" answers. The question now reads: "Should the Senate minority block the body's Constitutional duty to provide the President's judicial nominees with an up or down vote?"

So, will the senator reprimand his staffers for this obvious mendacity, maybe post an apology? And if he doesn't—if lying is considered OK in the Frist office on something this trivial—why should we trust him to be any more scrupulous when it comes to something that actually matters? And, more importantly, what kind of imbecile webmaster thinks that you can pull off something this brazen without anyone calling bullshit?

Update: You've got to be kidding… After waiting for the poll (with the "Should the Senate minority block…" wording) to just barely tip back in favor of the "yes" vote, the thing was tossed to the archive, but now with the original wording. Frist's webmaster is really putting in overtime on this one—all for a webpoll with no real significance whatever.

NEXT: Double Red-Meat Quotient

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  1. Web polling in general is stupid as a way to try to gauge public opinion in any broad sense. Most of the people who visit Frist’s web page are probably supporters of his anyway, so they are likely to support Frist. This proves nothing. When some liberal webheads flood his site with responses going the other way, that doesn’t prove anything either. I wish news organizations would stop treating these polls with any seriousness.

  2. I didn’t offer the Eschaton thread on the Frist poll as part of my evidence for Atrios being too controlling. It clearly isn’t evidence. Of course now, my original post is starting to look alot more “off topic”. Thanks alot Joe 🙂

  3. Article I Section 5 states, in part: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….” So how is a filibuster a violation of a constitutional mandate?

    This Frist poll is typical. Generally, when I deal with politically generated polls, I just get angry and refuse to answer because the questions are written wrong. This causes no end of enjoyment for telephone pollsters.

    I got a poll from Democratic National Headquarters with gems like these:

    Do you consider yourself: *Liberal *Moderate *Conservative?
    No.

    Do you think the Republicans in Congress are committed to improving public schools so all children have an opportunity to learn in safe, well-equipped schools? *Yes *No *Undecided?
    First, show me where this power is enumerated in Article I Section 8.

    The “Undecided,” “Don’t Know” and “Not Sure” options always make me especially mad. They imply that the fault is with ME, for being too ignorant of unsure of myself, when the fault is really with THEM for asking the questions wrong. GOD DAMN IT, I know exactly what I think, but it’s not one of the options.

    Well, now you can see why pollsters hang up on me in frustration.

  4. Dimmy, I agree whole heartedly, however, BULLSHIT!

  5. Dimmy, I agree whole heartedly, however, BULLSHIT!

  6. That’s why Atrios flags these stupid polls, Dimmy. The point is not to show overwhelming liberal support or opposition, it’s to demonstrate how easy it is to “freep” the poll and perhaps embarass the poll takers into stopping this nonsense (and have a little fun along the way). It worked on Wolf Blitzer.

  7. Ooh! Sven, please do tell. An embarassed Wolf Blitzer is nice.

  8. I’m surprised that Frist has had as much of a free ride as he has. He’s a, perhaps the, major shareholder in Hospital Corporation of America, a criminal enterprise which recently settled for a $1.5 billion, with a B, fine paid to the Feds for stealing from the taxpayer.

    I dunno how a guy like that is allowed in politics — unless that sort of thing is now considered a prerequisite for the Republican leadership.

  9. The White House website went back and changed their headlines from “President Declares End of Combat Operations in Iraq” to “President Declares End of Major Combat Operations in Iraq”, after it was apparent that combat wasn’t quite done yet.

    Well, that may have been the reason — or it may have been because the White House website had misquoted Bush; Bush had actually used the word “major.” In this case, they may have been dissembling — but if so, they got it right by accident.

  10. Kevin

    I always write in my own answers and other bits of abuse on them (like “end the war on drugs etc.) and mail them back. Juvenile and pointless maybe but I get it off my chest.

    I only do it to groups I don’t like like the RNC & DNC and only if they’ve provided return postage. That’s important because every one of those costs them money and tho noone sees them they take up someone’s time even just to dispose of them.

    “First, show me where this power is enumerated in Article I Section 8.” is pretty close to what I wrote for that one too, I think I wrote something like “not authorized in US constitution”.

  11. For those of you still unaware (you may be at this point, you may not be), this entire “affair” made it to the Senate floor during the “marathon” session of the GOP. Much to the embarassment of the GOP and Majority Leader Frist.

    In other words, it has gone from simply being a “post” on “Hit and Run” to a news story, reported by Reuters, which, as I say, picked it up because the Democratic Senators picked up on it and used it in their speeches.

  12. arjay,

    Another fun thing to do is stuff the postage-paid envelope with all your other junkmail, so they can pay to throw it away for you. And I ALWAYS stuff all the advertising back in with my credit card bill, and stuff the electric company newsletter in with my light bill, with a polite note to “please throw away this unwanted shit for me.” It’s also fun to make out the electric bill check out to AEP monopoly, and write “legalized extortion” on the ledger line.

    I’ve heard you can wrap a brick and tape one of those envelopes to it, and they have to pay the full shipping cost. But I don’t know if that’s true.

  13. Eschaton wondered why the “Camera” didn’t just ax the piece. The point Atrios made was that by the time the Boulder Camera printed the story, the author already had to correct it, had sent several reasons out to critics trying to justify the quote, justify changing the quote, etc…and the Camera was oblivious to all this and printed the column with the offending quote.

    On the Frist poll, he was so flummoxed that his site was down most of today. Democracy can be beautiful in action.

  14. Also, did Eschaton even run a thread on the “Soros aid to to the Dems” story a couple of days ago? I didn’t notice one.

    Yes. Linked to DailyKos.

  15. I think the frist story is fairly humorous. If you’re going to put one of these silly little polls up, you get what you deserve.

  16. If this is a “webpoll with no real significance whatever,” why is there a six paragraph post in Hit & Run about it?

  17. Atrios linked to Wolf Blitzer’s daily poll under the heading “Torture Wolf” every day, until he took it down. A few too many 97% anti-Bush outcomes, I guess.

  18. What’s significant is that Frist’s people kept messign with the wording to get the response they wanted. I’m assuming that the actual mechanics of the poll itself was out of their control. The lesson here is that if you’re going to put a web poll up, make sure your programmers have access to the polling mechanism and can change the numbers in the database to say what you want.

  19. If Frist can manage to pull together enough votes to make a stupid web poll come out the way he wants do the Republicans really want him running the Senate?

    That his staff resorted to the bullshit they did instead of just voting a few thousands times using every name in their email lists doesn’t speak well for their imaginations.

    That’s the problem with politicians and bureaucrats – even when they are cheating they evidence absolutely no creative thinking.

  20. First line above should read: If Frist can’t manage…

  21. anon @ 07:34 PM

    “I’ve heard you can wrap a brick and tape one of those envelopes to it, and they have to pay the full shipping cost. But I don’t know if that’s true.”

    Now that’s new to me. I just remember that back when I was an LP activist (pissing into the wind that is) I heard about the cost of franking. It’s very high, I don’t have actual numbers but it’s more than first class. Thats why many smaller outfits simply get volunteers or low-paid staffers to put 37-cent stamps on envelopes and mail them out with the begging appeal.

    As a side note, my dad once told me that before WWII (the “Big One” that is, when America was still America) you could write your congressman and send the letter without a stamp and it would be delivered. I don’t know if he was full of shit (he frequently was, genius mathmeticians often seem to get detatched from reality) but if that’s the case it needs to be brought back. There needs to be two-way communication with these clowns.

  22. David Nieporent – Yes, “major combat operations” is what the President actually said. However, the original posting to the White House website about the May 1st speech was the press backgrounder/release that the White House sent out to the media for use in writing stories about it. Copies of the press release/backgrounder were posted in a number of locations on the White House website, as well as places like the State Department and GOP websites, all with the “combat operations” phrasing. There were also a number of news stories written that reflected the “combat operations” phrasing.

    Press releases & backgrounders are gone over VERY carefully because they’re intended to be usable exactlly as written for a news story (though everyone knowns very few news organization will publish an un-edited press release). The point is that the wording of that document – including the “combat operations” phrasing would have to have been carefully reviewed and vetted at least by the Press Office before it was sent out and posted to the Web. It’s VERY unlikely that it was an error.

    In August, when questions started being raised about whether or not the President thought he had maybe been a bit premature in pronouncing combat as having ended, Bush pointed out that he’d actually said “major combat”, and almost immediately, someone started going through the White House website and updating those comments. One blog (which is no longer available, sadly) even had screenshots showing how all of these articles had been updated on August 18th, right after the question had been brought up.

    If it had been an error, the White House could have issued a statement that the original press release has been incorrectly worded, or, failing that, they could have made the change to the website documents and included a note saying that the document had originally been released to the press with the “combat operations” phrasing rather than saying “major combat operations”. Instead, they just made the change and apparently hoped no one would notice.

    What you end up with is a lot of news stories, the State Department and GOP websites all using one phrasing – which they got from the White House, and a White House website showing the original press release/backgrounder with a different phrasing. It may be more technically accurate now, but I don’t see how it could have been a “mistake” in the first place, and the way they went about revising makes it look like they want to be able to disclaim any responsiblity for the confusion.

  23. Er … speaking of things meaning the opposite of what was intended, I don’t think you meant what you said in the sentence, “In the halls of Congress nothing … is too petty to merit deception.” There should be a “not” after “petty,” shouldn’t there?

  24. No. “to merit deception” means the same as “to be worth lying about”, and I’m suggesting that the staffers appear to believe that nothing is too trivial to be worth lying about.

  25. Ah, got it on rereading. It was the implicit double negation (“too trivial” is effectively a negation) that had me misparsing it.

  26. The White House website went back and changed their headlines from “President Declares End of Combat Operations in Iraq” to “President Declares End of Major Combat Operations in Iraq”, after it was apparent that combat wasn’t quite done yet.

    The cool thing about the internet is you can actually see how the ingredients of propoganda are mixed to create the delicious cake the masses are allowed to eat.

  27. Atrios strikes me as too controlling. A little while back The “Daily Camera” in Boulder ran a anti-lefty Democrat opinion piece, and Atrios, in his intro to a thread about it on Eschaton wondered why the “Camera” didn’t just ax the piece.

    Also, did Eschaton even run a thread on the “Soros aid to to the Dems” story a couple of days ago? I didn’t notice one.

  28. And this information is relevant because ?

  29. Well, Atrios is the second link in the intro. to this thread. So, maybe my post is “tangential” to the topic but not really “off topic”. Had it been the first day of this thread I might have been more reticent to make that post.
    Threads do display a tendency to “branch out” anyway.

  30. How is slagging a newspaper for running a column “too controlling?” Are we not supposed to voice our opinions about what newspapers print now?

  31. “To everyone visiting from the Metafilter.com link:
    Nice that you allow a bucket of liberals to join the site and then shut down registration permanently. Great way to have a diversity of voices in your comments.”

    *Everyone??* This metafilter…it’s a democracy, is it? / OT

  32. M Soul:
    Regarding MetaFilter, please refrain from commenting until you know what you are talking about.

  33. Just for fun, an update –

    The Frist web site now has a new, marginally more clever poll: “Which highly qualified nominees to the federal bench are being filibustered by Senate Democrats?” (the choices are Janice Rogers, Carolyn Kuhl, Priscilla Owen, and All of the Above).

    I guess when all else fails, you just phrase the question so you can’t lose. It seems we’ve gone from the slightly subtle “heads, I win; tails, you lose” approach to the more bang-you-over-the-head technique of a two-headed coin.

  34. Frist’s office wanted a little poll widget on the web page, big deal; no intelligent person mistakes it for reality. Isn’t it slightly more pathetic–you know, in the bigger scheme of things–that “Atrios” is ostentatiously freeping it (in order to “send a message”, huh). Gee, how original. Keep digging up these great tidbits, Julian

  35. Actually, no. Web polls are easy to freep, for the obvious reason. They make phone-in-for-a-fee polls look scientific. The fact that a leader of one house of Congress couldn’t even deal honestly with a triviality like that is more important.

    At least, IMHO.

  36. Aye, in the contest between:

    (1) Liberal weblogger thinks it’s amusing to encourage readers to futz with a biased poll and

    (2) Senator’s staffers are so horrified by prospect of a bad result on said poll that they spend a day in a series of comically ham-handed attempts to rig it

    …I think number two wins the “pathetic” award pretty handily.

  37. To everyone visiting from the Metafilter.com link:

    Nice that you allow a bucket of liberals to join the site and then shut down registration permanently. Great way to have a diversity of voices in your comments.

  38. To whoever was complaining about the “Don’t Know” option I just have to say that no respectable poll would be without such an option. “Don’t Know” eliminates non-attitudes, otherwise people probably would have just said some random thing so they don’t sound stupid. Although, the poll you were given was faulty because it tried to polarize the answers to the questions when there could quite possibly be a middle-ground.

    The best answer to a poll like that is to just act confused and ask the pollster where the bathroom is.

  39. Republicans tampering with the tally of a public vote? Surely you’re mistaken.

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