When you see a big change, doubt it

Faced with a big change in responses to a particular question, some announce a major shift in public opinion and scour the world in search of a cause.

By contrast, when I see a big jump in the numbers, as my staff will attest, I respond by saying, “Let’s figure out what’s wrong with our poll.”

This week’s announcement by the truly great pollsters at Marist illustrates the difference.

Over the course of one month, Marist detected “a dramatic shift” in public attitudes toward abortion policy.

In January, Americans labeled themselves “pro-choice,” rather than “pro-life,” by a 17-point margin, but by February that gap collapsed to zero, with identical numbers accepting each label.

Marist ascribed the massive shift to recent debates over state laws on late-term abortions in New York and Virginia.

It’s rare—perhaps unprecedented— for any policy debate, federal or state, to alter public opinion on a basic issue so dramatically, in so short a time. It’s not impossible. It’s just very unlikely.

The case would be stronger if the shift had been confined to the Northeast and South. It wasn’t.

The movement was big in the Northeast — from +29 “pro-choice” to just +3. In the Midwest, though, home to neither New York nor Virginia, the pro-choice margin fell from +22 to -12, an even bigger drop.

The first culprit I’d explore is the demographic composition of the sample. I’m told the two polls are quite similar in that respect, so cross that out as an answer.

Similarly, no other question on the topic came before the labels, so a direst bias is also out.

Which brings me to two other considerations.

First, it’s a lousy question. Don’t blame Marist for that; it’s been asked for decades, which is probably why they used it.

While the political class readily identifies with words like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” many voters do not.

In a national survey we conducted, fewer than half defined the term “pro-choice” in a way even remotely connected to the abortion debate. Only 28 percent made explicit reference to abortion in their response. Another 20 percent offered a vague definition, usually about “trusting” women.

Half, however, were not even close. “Having the choice to change your mind if you want to — about anything.” “The choice to die.” “Choosing your religion.”

Questions asking voters to embrace one of these labels are not necessarily tapping into the abortion debate, because many don’t know what the terms mean.

Reflecting public ignorance of the terms, responses to the “pro-choice”/“pro-life” question bounce around a bit.

At about the same time Marist was finding voters “pro-choice” by a 20-point margin, Gallup found they were “pro-life” by 9 percentage points, using the same question.

In addition, accepting one of those labels does not necessarily translate into real public policy choices in any meaningful way.

For instance, in our survey, nearly a third of those who called themselves “pro-life” opposed more laws restricting access to abortion, saying instead “the government should not interfere with a woman’s access to abortion.”

Would “pro-life” leaders hold up as one of their own a politician who opposed more laws restricting abortion?

Roe v. Wade is at the heart of the public policy debate. In September, just 33 percent wanted it overturned, according to a poll by The Public Religion Research Institute, which would mean at least some “pro-lifers” want it upheld.

Finally, statistical science tells us there will be occasional outliers, after which we will experience regression to the mean. That is, the margin for “pro-choicers” will go back to its more typical spread.

So, before concluding a political earthquake has shaken public attitudes on abortion, take a chill pill and call me when you get the next result.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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