Looking Behind a Poll Result

When Ralph Nader announced his candidacy, the knee-jerk response of many irate commentators was to write him off; Democrats and a good portion of independents were united against Bush, they argued, and Nader wouldn’t get anywhere near the 2.7 percent of the vote that he captured in 2000.

Last night, however, the Associated Press released a poll it commissioned from Ipsos Public Affairs that indicated Nader had the support of 6 percent of 771 registered voters interviewed.

That figure was so out of alignment with expectations that Campaign Desk decided to look further into this matter.

Here’s the question that Ipsos Public Affairs, on behalf of the AP, asked of the lucky 771:

If the election for president were held today and the candidates were George W. Bush, the Republican, and John Kerry, the Democrat, and Ralph Nader, the independent, for whom would you vote? Do you lean more toward Kerry or Bush or Nader?

And their answer:

Bush (with leaners): 46 percent
Kerry (with leaners): 45 percent
Nader (with leaners): 6 percent
Not sure: 2 percent

Only two percent of voters don’t know which way they’re leaning? Eight months before the election? Either the electorate is much better informed than we thought, or there’s a bias in the question.

David King says it’s the latter. King, the Director of Political Studies at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, argues that the poll dramatically overstates how many Nader supporters are out there.

“They’re keying off the word ‘independent,’” says King. “This is a rejection of partisan labels. If you just gave them the names, Nader wouldn’t get anywhere near this kind of support. The wording suggests people were embracing the word ‘independent’ - not Ralph Nader.”

Thom Riehle, the president of Ipsos Public Affairs, says King is off track.

“I think he’s wrong, and I’d be interested to see any evidence he’d have that people are responding to the word ‘independent,’” he says. “The format of the question has been used for thirty years, so it’s withstood the test of time.”

The media isn’t even raising the question, however; it’s too busy spinning doomsday-for-the-Democrats scenarios. The AP said that the poll “validat[ed] Democrats’ fears,” and on “Fox and Friends” this morning, anchor Steve Doocy referred to Democrats’ concerns about a Nader candidacy before telling viewers, “There’s a new poll out that suggests perhaps there could be something to that.”

Look for more reports sounding this refrain in coming days. According to a weary King, “This kind of thing happens all the time.”

Somehow, we don’t find that reassuring.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.