NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, May 10th, 2021

Garbage in, garbage out: Here’s why KING5’s recent 2022 U.S. Senate polling is worthless

Last week, KING5 aired a sto­ry on Wash­ing­ton State’s forth­com­ing 2022 Unit­ed States Sen­ate race, which could very like­ly evolve into a gen­er­al elec­tion matchup between Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray and Repub­li­can chal­lenger Tiffany Smi­ley, who enjoys the back­ing of the Wash­ing­ton State Repub­li­can Party.

The sto­ry revolved around a poor­ly con­ceived poll ques­tion asked of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans by poll­ster Sur­veyUSA on KING5’s behalf between April 29th and May 5th, which was word­ed as follows:

Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor from Wash­ing­ton Pat­ty Mur­ray was first elect­ed in 1992 and plans to run for a sixth term next year. Do you think Pat­ty Mur­ray should? Or should not? Run for a sixth term?

31% of respon­dents to the sur­vey said Mur­ray should run again, while 47% said Mur­ray should not run again. 22% respond­ed that they were not sure. Five hun­dred and forty-one reg­is­tered vot­ers participated.

As you might expect, the Wash­ing­ton State Repub­li­can Par­ty wast­ed lit­tle time in turn­ing the KING5 sto­ry into a pitch for mon­ey to their email list. The email, attrib­uted to Chair Caleb Heim­lich, began with these lines:

Did you see the lat­est poll from KING5? 

Only 31% of vot­ers think Pat­ty Mur­ray should run for re-elec­tion​ — and with less than eigh­teen months until the midterm elec­tions, that means we have a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to defeat the Demo­c­rat [sic] incum­bent and help Repub­li­cans take back majori­ties in Congress!

After thir­ty years in D.C., Pat­ty Mur­ray has lost touch with the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton State and is in lock­step with the rad­i­cal agen­da of Nan­cy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

What “rad­i­cal agen­da”? Expand­ing health­care and work­er pro­tec­tions for Amer­i­can fam­i­lies? Invest­ing in bad­ly need­ed infra­struc­ture improve­ments and port secu­ri­ty? Putting col­lege with­in reach of more peo­ple? Com­bat­ing child pover­ty? Ensur­ing vet­er­ans get the sup­port and care that they need?

Those are just a few of the pri­or­i­ties that Sen­a­tor Mur­ray has focused on as a Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor through­out the last few decades.

Our research shows that they’re pri­or­i­ties shared by the peo­ple of this state.

It’s true that Mur­ray has rep­re­sent­ed Wash­ing­ton since 1992, which is a long run, but that does­n’t mean she’s out of touch like Repub­li­cans claim.

Con­trary to what Heim­lich’s email says, this poll find­ing is not evi­dence that Mur­ray is vul­ner­a­ble in the 2022 midterms. That’s because the ques­tion was not neu­tral­ly word­ed. Accord­ing­ly, it can­not pos­si­bly yield any valid data.

There’s a say­ing in tech that speaks to the prob­lem of worth­less data: garbage in, garbage out. If your inputs are bad, then your out­puts will also be bad.

To under­stand why this ques­tion is bad, let’s first look at the phras­ing again:

Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor from Wash­ing­ton Pat­ty Mur­ray was first elect­ed in 1992 and plans to run for a sixth term next year. Do you think Pat­ty Mur­ray should? Or should not? Run for a sixth term?

Upon first glance, it might not seem like there’s any­thing wrong with this ques­tion. It con­sists of a state­ment nam­ing Mur­ray and iden­ti­fy­ing her by her title, stat­ing when she was first elect­ed (1992) and not­ing that she is run­ning for reelec­tion. Then the ques­tion part of the ques­tion is posed. All factual.

Neu­tral­i­ty and fac­tu­al­i­ty aren’t the same thing, how­ev­er. A poll ques­tion can con­sist entire­ly of facts and still not be neu­tral. That’s the case here.

The facts are pre­sent­ed with­out any con­text and the ques­tion itself is not one that any of the respon­dents would ever actu­al­ly be tasked with answer­ing in real life.

Let’s con­sid­er the actu­al ques­tion first, replete with its three ques­tion marks (Do you think Pat­ty Mur­ray should? Or should not? Run for a sixth term?)

Run­ning for office is a very per­son­al deci­sion, and it’s not one that mil­lions of vot­ers — like the five hun­dred and forty-one includ­ed in this sur­vey sam­ple — get to make. Rather, it’s a deci­sion that is made indi­vid­u­al­ly by peo­ple who aspire to serve their state and coun­try, usu­al­ly with the advice of fam­i­ly and friends.

Mur­ray has already made that very impor­tant deci­sion to run again, which entails a lengthy com­mit­ment to con­tin­ued pub­lic ser­vice of six years. The rel­e­vant ques­tion for vot­ers is not whether she should run but whether she should be reelect­ed. That’s the deci­sion Wash­ing­to­ni­ans get to make in 2022.

Now, let’s talk about what the state­ment part of the ques­tion con­notes and what it leaves out. Con­text is real­ly impor­tant, and there’s a lot of con­text miss­ing here.

Pret­ty much every biog­ra­phy of an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive out in the pub­lic domain pro­vides their name, their office, and what year they were first elect­ed to that office because those are con­sid­ered essen­tial facts. But while those facts are com­mon to polit­i­cal biogra­phies, they are not the extent of them.

By selec­tive­ly pre­sent­ing just a cou­ple of facts about Mur­ray (she was elect­ed in 1992, plans to seek a sixth term next year) KING5 cre­at­ed an ageist ques­tion with an anti-incum­ben­cy frame, whether that was their inten­tion or not.

The afore­men­tioned results are thus to be expect­ed. It can be assumed that the con­tent of the ques­tion influ­enced the respons­es to the question.

Then there’s what was left out.

There’s no dis­cus­sion of Mur­ray’s actu­al record as a Sen­a­tor, and no men­tion of any of her accom­plish­ments, which could fill a book. There’s no men­tion of her pri­or­i­ties and what she’ll offer as a can­di­date for the Sen­ate in 2022.

Due to its poor con­struc­tion, the ques­tion absurd­ly invites respon­dents to view Mur­ray’s lengthy tenure neg­a­tive­ly, when in fact, in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate, senior­i­ty and length of ser­vice is a huge advan­tage… and arguably the biggest of advan­tages with respect to how much clout a sen­a­tor can wield.

Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have ben­e­fit­ed for years from Mur­ray’s expe­ri­ence and proven abil­i­ties as an appro­pri­a­tor. What’s more, Mur­ray serves in a key lead­er­ship posi­tion in the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus and is a com­mit­tee chair once again now that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has a bare work­ing major­i­ty in the Senate.

Speak­ing of bare work­ing majori­ties, KING5’s ques­tion also does­n’t invoke the larg­er polit­i­cal and elec­toral land­scape, which is of para­mount impor­tance to most vot­ers in this high­ly polar­ized era of Amer­i­can history.

As is com­mon knowl­edge, the Sen­ate is cur­rent­ly even­ly divid­ed, fifty to fifty, between the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and its inde­pen­dent allies and the Repub­li­can Party.

Next year’s Sen­ate race will be as much about the bal­ance of pow­er in the Sen­ate as it will be about Mur­ray and who­ev­er becomes her gen­er­al elec­tion opponent.

Mur­ray’s reelec­tion is cru­cial to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s prospects of retain­ing a Sen­ate major­i­ty after the midterms. The Democ­rats can’t afford to lose a Sen­ate seat in a blue state. Since the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is unit­ed behind Mur­ray, there will be no cred­i­ble Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­si­tion to her candidacy.

(I can say that very con­fi­dent­ly as a long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic activist and cur­rent mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Cen­tral Committee!)

The choice in 2022 will thus be between Mur­ray and a Repub­li­can loy­al to Don­ald Trump, most like­ly the WSR­P’s recruit Tiffany Smi­ley, as men­tioned earlier.

It is uncom­mon for poll­sters to offer all of the con­text I just talked about in a sur­vey because it would result in lengthy ques­tions that could eas­i­ly still fail to be neu­tral. The usu­al approach to siz­ing up a can­di­date’s prospects in a future elec­tion is to offer a sim­ple hypo­thet­i­cal matchup that iden­ti­fies the like­ly can­di­dates and their par­ty affil­i­a­tions, and then asks the respon­den­t’s opinion.

This approach pre­sumes the respon­dents already have an opin­ion based on their polit­i­cal knowl­edge and lean­ings. In a high pro­file par­ti­san race such as next year’s con­test for Unit­ed States Sen­ate, they usu­al­ly do.

If a respon­dent does­n’t know any­thing about one or more of the can­di­dates, they can still offer an opin­ion based pri­mar­i­ly on the can­di­dates’ par­ty affiliations.

Per­haps Sur­veyUSA did ask such a ques­tion for KING5… but if they did, they have not released it. You can see that the only ques­tion that is in the release is the one I repro­duced above. Sur­veyUSA has been doing quite a bit of polling for KING5 late­ly, but there are no oth­er released ques­tions about the U.S. Sen­ate race.

In polling, as in so many oth­er things in life, less can be more.

As I explained, KING5 and Sur­veyUSA left so much about Pat­ty Mur­ray’s record and the 2022 envi­ron­ment out of their ques­tion. Why did­n’t they just leave out every­thing except for the bare essen­tials need­ed to ask a neu­tral question?

We know from research done by lin­guists and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists that words are like flags: they evoke ideas and feel­ings. The use of a par­tic­u­lar word or set of words will acti­vate a par­tic­u­lar frame in the mind of the read­er or listener.

For a ques­tion to be neu­tral, it has to be word­ed in a way that will prompt the respon­dent to vol­un­tar­i­ly sup­ply their own opinion.

We can look at the prob­lem­at­ic con­struc­tion of KING5’s ques­tion from anoth­er angle by uti­liz­ing a hypo­thet­i­cal. Let’s sup­pose that vot­ers in Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton were to be asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion about Dan New­house by SurveyUSA:

Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Wash­ing­ton’s 4th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict Dan New­house vot­ed to impeach Don­ald Trump and plans to run for anoth­er term next year. Do you think Dan New­house should? Or should not? Run for anoth­er term?

Like KING5’s ques­tion about Pat­ty Mur­ray, this ques­tion con­sists of noth­ing but facts. It is a fact that Dan New­house is a mem­ber of Con­gress rep­re­sent­ing the 4th Dis­trict. It is a fact that he vot­ed to impeach Don­ald Trump. And it is a fact that he has filed to run for reelec­tion with the Fed­er­al Elec­tions Commission.

Despite being fac­tu­al, the ques­tion is not neu­tral and would not yield any use­ful data con­cern­ing New­house­’s polit­i­cal future were it to be asked.

Again, for a ques­tion to be neu­tral, it has to be word­ed in a way that it will prompt the respon­dent to sup­ply their own opin­ion. We’re not going to find out what vot­ers in cen­tral Wash­ing­ton real­ly think about their cur­rent Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive if we ask them the hypo­thet­i­cal ques­tion I just con­struct­ed above.

At NPI, one of our max­ims is the answers you get depend on the ques­tions you ask. It’s one of the most impor­tant tru­isms in pol­i­tics. You’ll find this state­ment in dozens of Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate posts going back years.

I ful­ly expect the Repub­li­can Par­ty to go on tout­ing this invalid poll find­ing as evi­dence that Mur­ray is vul­ner­a­ble in 2022. That may suit Democ­rats just fine, how­ev­er. Democ­rats have long enjoyed cel­e­brat­ing Pat­ty Mur­ray vic­to­ries after lis­ten­ing to end­less con­ceit­ed Repub­li­can pre­dic­tions of Mur­ray’s demise.

Seat­tle Times com­ment threads pri­or to the Novem­ber 2010 elec­tion, for exam­ple, were chock full of Repub­li­can read­ers con­vinced Mur­ray’s career was over. Of course, it was­n’t. Mur­ray has nev­er lost reelec­tion, and no cred­i­ble observ­er thinks that’s like­ly to hap­pen in 2022.

Repub­li­cans can dream, but his­to­ry sug­gests that when the fall of 2022 rolls around, Wash­ing­ton vot­ers will return Pat­ty Mur­ray to the Senate.

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One Ping

  1. […] Repub­li­cans have recent­ly been trum­pet­ing the results of a sur­vey con­duct­ed by Sur­veyUSA for KING5 as evi­dence that Mur­ray is vul­ner­a­ble in 2022. The sur­vey con­tained a ques­tion ask­ing vot­ers whether Mur­ray should or should not run for a sixth term (a plu­ral­i­ty respond­ed in the neg­a­tive). I explained why this ques­tion was prob­lem­at­ic and the results there­fore worth­less earl…. […]

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