Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Deceiving Polls on Obama and Afghanistan

Of all the instruments used to determine what people are thinking, polling is the most widely used in social science and the easiest to conduct.  But you have to be careful of the results, because polls are also used to bolster partisanship on certain issues (like war or health-care), or to damage a person’s reputation during an election cycle.

Take this poll by the USA Today, which is used by Third Way‘s Kyle Spector on why Americans still support President Obama on Afghanistan:

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent support the president’s timetable to begin withdrawing some troops in July 2011. And, although the question isn’t asked as frequently, other polls found significant majorities believe in the mission in Afghanistan even as they see U.S. efforts hitting obstacles. Sixty-one percent believe that “eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal for American troops to fight and possibly die for,” and 76 percent believe what happens in Afghanistan matters to their security in the U.S.—

Poll results are only as accurate and reliable as the poll themselves. So when a poll asks a very specific question, geared towards a specific answer, like “eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal,” the poll itself doesn’t really capture the real opinions of Americans. How can American citizens not respond positively to the question of eliminating terrorists? That’s like asking an American if he/she likes democracy, or giving a fat kid the choice between a piece of cake and a carrot stick. Obviously he’s going to choose the cake.

This is not to say that Third Way is a bad organization. Third Way has a great reputation in Washington D.C. But this poll is a little shaky. A real good question shouldn’t introduce bias in order to sway a respondent towards a particular answer. All polling companies do this, of course, but that still doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Kyle Spector of Third Way.  His article appears on FP.com’s AfPak Channel**


8 Responses

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  1. Dr. Kuchbhi said, on July 20, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    When Obama said our troops would start coming home in 2011, the war was effectively over.

    Our allies and supporters who have been trying to convince their people that the war is worth fighting suddenly found themselves more Tibetan than the Dalai Lama.

    People who rely on us for their survival started cutting deals with our enemies since their lives will be at their mercy once we depart – wouldn’t be the first time so they would be stupid not to.

    Obama did more to destroy our chances of victory with that one statement than all our enemies in Afghanistan put together.

    Unless we make a u turn and say that we’ll be there as long as it takes to win, we’ve lost and our politicians seem to find that chickening out of the fight will win more votes. So it’s over.

  2. CitizenWhy said, on July 20, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    “There is no instance of a nation profiting from a prolonged war.” Sun Tzu, Art of War, II
    The US is pursuing the same “strategy” as the old Soviet Union: over expansion of empire, perpetual war leading to financial collapse.

  3. Jaydee001 said, on July 20, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Until Obama put the spotlight on Afghanistan, it was just ‘that other war’ in a country most Americans could not find on a map if they had to. Our media and politicians were too focused on the war in Iraq, the war of choice that we could have avoided altogether if we were smart enough.

    The fact that the Taliban were resurgent in Afghanistan and had come back from their earlier defeat to pose a threat to the puppet government we installed there was little noted by the media and not really in the consciousness of the average US citizen until last year. The fact that people still may ask what we are really fighting for there, and what our goals are, shows that our leaders still cannot make a convincing case for prosecution of a war that is bound to become more costly from this time forward.

    Hell, the majority of people in the US still believe that Saddam Hussein was the culprit behing 9-11. Getting these people to comprehend the stakes for us in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a major undertaking, and I have not seen a President or candidate capable of doing so. Even a reputed master communicator like Obama cannot sell this war as anything other than a mission we need to pursue so we may avoid a humiliating defeat.

  4. marky32141 said, on July 21, 2010 at 12:27 am

    You know what? president obama has only been going on trips and taking vacatijon like george bush! i mean a president shouldnt be doing it this much! thats a bad way to show how good of a president they cant be. i disagree with what he is doing! I dont like obama and i wish a new president came to place. We need somebody like ronald regan or eisonhower! Dude obama i wish i wasnt in america when you were president 😦

  5. American citizen said, on July 25, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Afghanistan reminds me of Vietnam a useless war keeping Americans busy with false propaganda of treats that do not exist. Ronald Regan and George Bush, mostly Bush, lead the path to our current situation of failure today. Our government in the beginning supported, COVERTLY, Afghanistan against the Russians with over 1 billion dollars of war goods. But after ending their involvement refused to aid 1 million dollars for education/schools for Afghanistan.

    Here we are today waging war in that very same country…..No sense whatsoever.

    • Dan said, on July 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm

      I understand your frustration with the war, as well as your comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. And in many ways, the two conflicts do resemble one another; the U.S. finds itself battling a foreign sponsored insurgency (U.S.S.R. with the Vietcong and Pakistan with the Taliban) and is essentially hostage to the actions of a weak and unpopular host government.

      But there are also lots of differences between the two (in addition to cultural, ethnic, and religious distinctions). For instance, the Vietcong was relatively popular in the eyes of the Vietnamese population, which made the job of containing the rebels even more difficult for the U.S. Military. The Afghan Taliban- while somewhat popular in Pashtun areas in the south- is generally despised by Afghans as backward and brutal. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s lack of support is still not making Washington’s job easy.

      One more point to consider; the United States had a justification for launching its war in Afghanistan. The U.S. could argue- and did in fact argue- self defense as one of the main goals for routing the Taliban Government in 2001-2002. Of course, I’m sure that one of the main reasons for using self-defense as an argument was the concepts universal support in the U.N. Charter. It’s really difficult to argue against self-defense.

      Contrast that with America’s involvement in Vietnam in 1964, which wasn’t necessarily supported by all Americans and whose justification is still in dispute today.

      Thank you for your comment. Check back soon!!

  6. American citizen said, on July 25, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you Dan, I appreciate the info.

    Good site.

    • Dan said, on July 27, 2010 at 1:38 am

      Thank you…it’s about a year in the making, but hopefully always improving. Pass on the URL to anyone interested in international affairs.

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