Just because the 2012 elections are finally behind us doesn't mean that the indefatigable corps of overworked pollsters have all taken well-deserved vacations to some tropical getaway. However, some are letting their hair down a bit, throwing a few novelty or trick questions into their surveys. As a result, this week Americans either showed they have little understanding of what's going on in politics or are having their share of fun by trolling the pollsters. There's another explanation, says Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog About Politics. "Most of us don't bother to develop real opinions about lots and lots of things, but yet are nevertheless willing to answer pollsters' questions." Either way, this week's crop of "great polling questions" is actually "an excellent reminder of why all policy surveys should be taken with a monstrously large grain of salt." In that spirit, here's a look at four of the most head-on-desk responses to the past few days of polling, and why we maybe shouldn't take the answers at face value:
1. Half of Americans think going over the fiscal cliff would increase the deficit
For all the talk about the dreaded fiscal cliff, Business Insider suspected that few people actually understand what's at stake in the looming mix of tax increases and spending cuts. So they had online pollster Survey Monkey — whose "excellent track record" is much better than its name suggests — ask: "Were the United States to 'go over the fiscal cliff,' what do you expect would happen to the national deficit?" Nearly half of respondents — 47 percent — said it would increase the deficit, versus 12.6 percent who answered, correctly, it would decrease the deficit. By quite a lot. "In a way, I understand this," says Paul Krugman at The New York Times. The Beltway press has "been pounding the drum over and over again about how deficits are bad, evil; now they are warning about a fiscal something-or-other, so how are people supposed to know that they’re suddenly worried that we'll reduce the deficit too much?"
2. One-fourth of Americans have a stance on the make-believe Panetta-Burns plan
Possibly as poorly understood as the fiscal cliff is one of the plans frequently cited to avoid it, the Simpson-Bowles plan — a rejected proposal from President Obama's 2010 deficit-reduction committee, headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.) and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles. According to Public Policy Polling's latest survey, a respectable 39 percent of Americans have an opinion about Simpson-Bowles. But "before you start celebrating," says Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post, "25 percent also of Americans also took a stance on the Panetta-Burns plan." Never heard of this masterpiece from Leon Panetta and ex-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.)? That's because it's "a mythical Clinton chief of staff/former Western Republican senator combo" that PPP made up. (Perhaps coincidentally, it also sounds like a plan devised by Monty Burns, a character on The Simpsons.) For the record, 8 percent support Panetta-Burns, while 17 percent oppose it.
3. Half of GOP voters think a nonexistent group stole the election for Obama
According to PPP — the pollster clearly having the most fun after the election — "49 percent of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama," compared with 52 percent who said the same in 2008. The problem? ACORN no longer exists. The community organizing group went bankrupt and disbanded in 2010. I think there's a fairly "charitable explanation" for this, says Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect. It's clear "a large number of Republicans don’t like President Obama, and when offered a chance to endorse something that signals that dislike, they did it, even if the 'something' is absolutely insane." That's too charitable, says Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog. After all, "Fox News keeps telling its viewers that ACORN still does exist — at least in altered form" — and that its former employees are responsible for a "massive subversion of the American way of life."
4. One-fourth of Republicans want to secede
In what PPP calls another sign of "Republicans not handling election results well," the merry pollsters found that a full 25 percent of Republicans want their state to secede from the union, versus 56 percent who want to stick it out. Keep in mind, says Pat Cunningham at Tennessee's the OakRidger, that's a quarter of "the political party that fancies itself the citadel of American patriotism." But while secession is a surprisingly popular idea these days, the number isn't as dramatic as it looks, PPP says. "One reason that such a high percentage of Republicans are holding what could be seen as extreme views is that their numbers are declining," from 37 percent identifying as members of the party before the election to 32 percent now. (Democrats now make up 44 percent of the pie, versus 39 percent pre-election.)