August 12, 2011

Ask the Expert

The Pew Research Center often receives questions from visitors to our site and users of our studies about our findings and how the research behind them is carried out. In┬áthis feature, senior research staff answers questions relating to the areas covered by our seven projects ranging from polling techniques and findings, to media, technology, religious, demographic and global attitudes trends. We can’t promise to respond to all the questions that we receive from you, our readers, but we will try to provide answers to the most frequently received inquiries as well as to those that raise issues of particular interest.

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Updated August 12, 2011

Q. With the 2012 election approaching, shouldn’t the Pew Research Center now concentrate on conducting opinion surveys among voters, rather than all adults? What do I need to know in comparing an “all adults” to a “registered voters” poll?

The presidential campaign is moving into high gear and many polling organizations are, in fact, conducting surveys only of registered voters, or even in some cases only likely voters. This is not the approach of the Pew Research Center, which studies public attitudes toward politics, the press and policy issues. On subjects ranging from the debt crisis to the war in Afghanistan — issues that affect all Americans, voters and non-voters alike — the Center attempts to get the broadest possible measure of public attitudes.

This is not to say that the Center does not track the electoral preferences of voters. While we ask election questions – indeed, all questions – of the public, we present the results of election questions based on registered voters in our survey reports. Registered voters are adults who say that they are “absolutely certain” they are registered to vote in their precinct or election district (usually around three-quarters of all survey respondents). Typically, the views of registered voters are not very different from those of the general public. Yet on election questions, we feel it is important to present the results based on those who are at least certain they are registered to vote; a person who tells us they are not registered, or is not sure, is very unlikely to cast a ballot. As the election approaches in fall 2012, we will increasingly report on the preferences and attitudes of likely voters as well as registered voters. More detail on how we identify likely voters is available here.

In our July 28 survey report — see “Obama Loses Ground in 2012 Reelection Bid” — 41% of registered voters said they would like to see Obama reelected while 40% said they would prefer that a Republican candidate win the election. The accompanying topline questionnaire shows the responses of all adults — as well as registered voters — on this question: 42% of all adults said they favored Obama’s reelection while 37% preferred a Republican. The slight Obama edge among all adults is not unusual; those who tell us they are not registered to vote include more young adults and minorities — groups that tend to be more supportive of Obama.

On election questions, the Pew Research Center wants to provide an accurate gauge of voter intentions. Yet the Center also has conducted extensive research on non-voters – who they are, what they think, and why they do not vote. For more, see “The Party of Non-Voters” from October 2010 and “Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why” from October 2006.

Carroll Doherty, Associate Director, Pew Research Center

Q. I am always frustrated by polls asking whether one is a liberal, moderate or conservative. My feeling is that about two thirds of Americans are liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues. (In other words they are actually Libertarians) Can’t you ask this question better? Even laying out “litmus test” questions on gun control, abortion, the effect of more or less taxes and deficits, gay marriage, national defense (foreign adventures), space exploration, size of government, global warming (and what to do about it, assuming it exists), etc. I fear that many people answer “moderate” because they are taking an average, so to speak, while having very strong but inconsistent and diverging opinions — anything but moderate.

The summary measure of political ideology you refer to has been in use — in one form or another — since the 1930s. It is useful to us for summarizing trends in ideology, and when used in conjunction with party affiliation provides a powerful way of segmenting the public. We certainly find that self-labeled conservatives tend to take conservative positions on issues, while self-described liberals tend to take liberal positions. Moderates, as you suggest, often express a mix of views.

But the question is far from perfect. For one thing, some people do not understand the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” More important, the views of some people do not fit neatly into what we have come to think of as the liberal or conservative traditions, as you suggest in your question.

In order to account for the many dimensions of public attitudes, we periodically take a look at the public through the lens of our “political typology” (see “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology“), which uses a series of questions about basic political values to divide the public into nine core political groups. There is indeed a group of Americans — whom we labeled “Libertarians” — who express fairly liberal views on social issues and conservative views on economic issues (see the profiles of all the groups here). But this GOP-leaning group accounts for only 9% of the U.S. public. There also are two Democratic-leaning groups who hold a blend of socially conservative values and moderate-to-liberal economic values. In fact, relatively few people hew strictly to consistent liberal and conservative opinions on all issues. That doesn’t mean that the terms have completely lost their utility in American politics, but it’s one of the reasons that our approach to the study of public opinion tends to focus more heavily on questions about specific political issues than on broader questions of ideological sentiment.

Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center
President, American Association for Public Opinion Research, 2011-2012