Polling on Obama's 'illegal' actions: An exercise in frustration

Republicans are planning to give the president an exercise in trial by congressional hearing. A poll question seemed designed to go along with their premise that his administration has run amok.

Republicans are planning to give the president an exercise in trial by congressional hearing. A poll question seemed designed to go along with their premise that his administration has run amok.

Monday night, I almost became part of a nationally published body of public opinion, for the very first time. Rasmussen Reports called. They wanted my opinion on President Barack Obama and the new Republican majority in the House. It was an exercise in frustration, even before I screwed it up by accidentally hitting the wrong phone key.

Frustrating, because Rasmussen has no person speaking on the phone, just an electronic robot you can't talk back to. Some pollsters have a problem with that. There’s no one of whom you might ask “Explain what that question means,” or “what if I disagree with the premise?” Or “Can you excuse me for a minute while I go to the bathroom?” You can’t ask anything, just punch the phone pad. I didn’t even manage to do that right.

The first few questions in the poll sounded like warm-ups. These were along the lines of how you feel about President Obama’s handling of national security (touch one if you approve, two if you disapprove, three if you’re not sure.) Likewise on the economy. And do you consider yourself a Republican (touch one), a Democrat (two), a member of another party (three) or independent (four). Okay, so far. Even a geezer like me can handle that. Or you would think so. But not always when deconstructing the questions, fumbling with the phone pad, and listening to the voice:

“Which is a more important role for the new Congress – exposing any illegal actions taken by the Obama administration since January 2009 or exercising oversight over its future actions?  Or are both roles equally important?”

It seems to me that all three of those choices assume illegal shenanigans at the White House. But the electronic poll does not allow for any nuanced response, none that goes beyond the assumption implicit in the question. No way to indicate that there are congressional items such as tax policy, two wars bleeding us toward moral and financial bankruptcy, and a very long list of other issues that might qualify as fairly important stuff for the new Congress. The phrasing sounded to me like a “push poll” designed to persuade the listener to a predetermined set of truths (or to the truth of a set of untruths.)

“No, no, that is not what we do,” says Debra Falk, the amiable and persuasive media relations person at the Rasmussen Report. “You must have misunderstood the questions. This poll is gauging public reaction to announcements by the Republican House members that they plan to investigate the White House. We are asking the public if they think that’s what Congress should be doing.”

She directed me to Rasmussen’s website and a Tuesday article about the public reaction to Republican plans to make investigating Obama a primary function of the new House majority. Republican Darrell Issa of California, who will head the House Committee on Oversight, says he wants seven investigative hearings per week for 40 weeks. No surprise, the poll result is mixed. The general public — when not divided along party lines — seems not to cheer the prospect. That’s the body of public opinion I was almost a part of.

This piece has a lousy ending. Responding to the questions with my left hand while taking notes with my right, I hit the wrong key and broke the connection, right after the question about the president’s presumed illegal activities. Interview over, dang it. It took 80 years for a legitimate pollster to find me, and I blew it. They may not call again for another 80.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.