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Polling Plague: How Bush and Co. Hide the Truth About America's Real Response to the Prospect of War

By Cheryl Seal

You can tell that the Bush administration and its legion of minions in the corporate media and paid polling outfits are getting increasingly desperate to get the results they want. They are conducting poll after poll after poll and are now relying increasingly on "focus groups" instead of purely random poll results.. What's a focus group? Its a small group of people selected from a small geographic area who can only be part of the group if their answers to a prescreening questionnaire fit the profile sought.

A woman in Maryland I know recently sent me a focus group questionnaire she had received from Zogby, who has had a track record of being one of the best polling outfits. The focus group was supposedly devoted to investigating public response to newspapers in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. Sounds good, right? Well, a closer look reveals the real purpose of the focus group.

First off, the metropolitan D.C. newspaper reading area includes Baltimore (a few hundred thousand residents of the city work in D.C, and, in any case, the same newspapers are sold in D.C. as are sold in Baltimore). In short, Baltimore and D.C. are about like St. Paul and Minneapolis, Long Island and Manhattan. However, the prescreening questionnaire required that the focus group candidate live in Maryland suburbs, northern Virginia or D.C. itself. Living in Maryland, I can tell you, if you want to get a nice selection of conservatives, then trawl the Maryland and northern VA suburbs. If you want to studiously AVOID netting many liberals, then stay out of Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Repugs 9 to 1. So it was obvious that a conservative skewing was being sought.

Secondly, though the focus group was supposed to be newspapers in the greater D.C. area, the only newspaper it specifically asked readers their opinion of (rate it as good, poor, excellent, or average) was "The Washington Times." ( So, it seems clear they were seeking people living in northern VA, and in the wealthy burbs of D.C. who have a specific opinion of the Washington Times. Yep,. sounds unskewed to us (NOT!)!. The woman sent a note to Zogby complaining that the focus group looked bogus. A Zogby rep responded, saying the specs for the focus group were based on what the "client" wanted - the client, without doubt, being the Washington Times.

So, the Washington Times, having recently been declining in credibility since its controller, guiding spirit and chief out-of-pocket funder Rev. Sun Myung Moon got up at a 20th anniversary bash for the paper and delivered a 2-hour religious rant in which he declared that God plots the editorial course, was in need of a little engineered good press. Whaddya wanna make a bet that in the next few weeks or so we see a headline declaring that "TWO THIRDS OF AMERICAN READERS SAY WASHINGTON TIMES BEST, MOST UNBIASED PAPER EVER!!"

The important thing to remember here - that I would like to scream, in fact, from the roof tops! - is that polling outfits are COMMERCIAL BUSINESSES. They are not out there conducting polls out of curiosity and a selfless desire to truly determine what Ma and Pa America really think. They are hired by special interests to conduct polls - even the best of them, such as Zogby - and they are all too often, also paid to get the desired results, or some useable semblance thereof. Does anyone REALLY think that a polling outfit would stay in business long if they repeatedly came back with the results their clients did NOT want to see? Harhar.

Here's an example of an earlier skewed report using slanted focus groups. http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Terrorism/introd.html What is particularly ominous about this report is that it was produced in Nov, 2001 - just two months after the 9/11 attack and a key element was assessing America's interest in INVADING IRAQ. Just a little odd, doncha think, considering the Bush battle cry was supposed to be "Get Osama!" Talk about feeling the REAL course out way ahead of time! The findings were based in large part on the response of two focuse groups: one in Frederick, Md, a bastion of conservatism, where very high percentage of the population is connected to the military (Fort Detrick is located here). The other focus group was conducted in Raleigh, NC, another conservative stronghold. You'll notice that no URBAN areas or any towns in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts or other liberal areas were selected. In addition, only 602 randomly selected adults was included nationwide, and the report fails to state how they were selected.

Bush and Co. (and by "Co" I mean his bottomless pit of corporate editors, talking heads, pollsters, and pundits) are becoming ever more desperate to get the results they want from polls. They have set a vast dragnet and from this select the few useable results, while conveniently deep-sixing the "rest of the story." They remind me of adolescents playing with one of those old fashioned 8 balls shaking it over and over to try to get the answer they want to come up. When they don't get it, they simply doctor the way the results are reported.

For example, in the first week of Sept on public radio, I heard the results of the latest Iraq poll described. Several questions were asked in this poll, only one of which was "Do believe the US should take action against Saddam Hussein?" Talk about a loaded and all but meaningless question!!!! I mean, who in their right mind does not believe action should be taken against Saddam? But action is a word that is about as wide as the Persian Gulf, and can range in meaning from economic sanctions to intensive diplomatic talks, from weekly UN inspections to daily US bombing. Another question asked in the same poll was "Do you favor unilateral action by the US against Iraq." The results of the poll were actually that while 69% favored action against Saddam, only 31% favored any unilateral action unspported by an allied effort.In addition, fewer than 50% thought the U.S. had sufficient pretext to take military action. But what got trumpeted on that night's televised propaganda fests on CBS, NBC, FOX, et al? "TWO THIRDS OF AMERICANS FAVOR ACTION AGAINST IRAQ!!!!!!" And, of course, the soundbytes were presented in a way that strongly implied that action was synonymous with "ATTACK." Never again did I hear the other parts of that poll repeated. They were simply swept under the media carpet.

So what does Bush think will happen when he actually declares war? That the 69% who in reality OPPOSE the action are going to suddenly turn into the gung-ho hawks and be happy to ship their sons and daughters off to the front? Not bloody likely. I think the scope of the backlash could well dwarf the anti-Vietnam War backlash. Afterall, we now have veterans from both Vietnam AND the Gulf War who adamantly oppose attacking Iraq. But, blinded by the illusion he has created in his "magic mirror" with paid polls and an unscupulous media, Bush cannot imagine such a possibility.

But the disparity between the man on the street and the poll results are getting to be so glaring that even mainstream journalists are finding it impossible to ignore. In this week's NY Times, Matthew Purdy asks "Where are these two-thirds of Americans who want war?" Purdy tried, but could not find them.

And, finally, here's a report on Global Warming from the same organization that produced the Nov. 2001 report above. This report used a totally random national poll (randomly-dialed digits) to generate its results, rather than focus groups. http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/GlobalWarming/buenos_aires.html The results are much closer to what most of experience as reality in dealing with our fellow Americans. It also proves what a HUGE GULF there is between the Bush administration/GOP Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people. Come November, not even the highest paid pollster will be able to hide that fact.