April 29, 2004
Different Poll Results, but Much in Common
t least five organizations have surveyed the public this month about President Bush's performance, the war in Iraq and the political prospects for this year, and the differences among them are typical of surveys asking different questions at different times.
Because of the statistics of polling, those differences are less than they seem on the surface — comparisons among polls of about 1,000 respondents, as these polls had, carry a sampling error of 4 percentage points.
The New York Times/CBS News Poll's main findings were consistent with trends in some other recent polls but somewhat more negative for Mr. Bush. For example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted April 15 to 18 put Mr. Bush's job approval rating at 51 percent. A poll by the Pew Research Center conducted April 21 to 25 put it at 48 percent. The current Times/CBS Poll, taken slightly later, April 23 to 27, put it at 46 percent. In statistical terms, these are virtually the same.
Wording differences among polls can also have a significant effect. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51 percent said that the war in Iraq had been worth fighting, "all in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States." That number was down from 56 percent in January and 59 percent in December. Forty-seven percent said it was not worth fighting, up from 41 percent in January and 39 percent in December.
The latest Times/CBS News Poll asked whether the "result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq." Thirty-three percent said it was worth it, down from 42 percent in mid-March and 43 percent in January.
The Pew organization asked, "Do you think the U.S. made the right decision or the wrong decision in using military force against Iraq?" It found that 54 percent of respondents believed going to war in Iraq was the right decision, statistically indistinguishable from 57 percent in early April and down from 62 percent in January. Pew found that 37 percent of Americans felt using military force was the wrong decision, nearly the same as 35 percent in early April but up from 28 percent in January.
Every polling organization has different ways of wording questions and of conducting surveys, but those methods tend to remain consistent over time within an organization. For this reason, the trends within an organization's polling are generally viewed as more relevant than the results from polls by different organizations within a short period of time.
Of course, the natural progression of news also has an effect on public opinion. For example, publicity about the new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, which spurred some critical accounts of the Bush administration's war planning, began appearing roughly a week before the current Times/CBS poll and while the ABC News/Washington Post poll was in progress. The first pictures of coffins arriving from Iraq were published in newspapers across the country and broadcast on television networks just before the New York Times/CBS News survey began. The toll in Iraq continued to grow in what has become the worst month for military deaths since the initial phase of the war ended.