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Go Figure: An L.A. Times Poll’s Strange Numbers Game

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Graph: Urocyon/Wikipedia

The Los Angeles Times recently carried a report on one of its polls, the key finding of which was that the electorate is unwilling to compromise.

This article was dripping with contempt for voters, who apparently prefer things like “party orthodoxy,” want to “stick to their guns,” are “hardline” and “putting their priorities above compromise.” Their “concede nothing mentality” makes it hard for either side to “come out of its ideological corner.”

The evidence for these central findings is largely from one question (No. 59), asked only of Democrats: Would they’d prefer that Obama “compromise more with Republicans” or “stand up to Republicans”?

According to the pollster’s analysis, 60 percent of Dems want Obama to stand up, while only 33 percent want him to compromise. The problem is how the analyst got there. Voters had four choices: Compromise “somewhat or much,” and “stand-up somewhat or much;” the poll analysis aggregates the “somewhat” and “much” options to get its “total standup” versus “total compromise” result.

So here’s my question—if Obama stands up “somewhat,” would he not also, you know, be compromising somewhat (or perhaps he’s somewhat pregnant)?  In which case, more people prefer compromising to standing up.

This is a stupid question, asked dumbly, and there’s no end to the list of things wrong with it. (Okay, there is an end, but the point stands, without compromise.) The terms are loaded (is standing up ever bad, compared to, say, compromising one’s principles?). The answer is situation-dependent (compromise on issues I think are less important, stand up on issues I think are very important seems like a position many people would take; how should they answer?).

Republicans were asked different questions to get at this issue (Nos. 36 and 37). Both are about what kind of candidate Republicans want to run against Obama. The first is whether Republicans want someone they agree with or someone who can win, while the second is whether they want someone who will compromise or stand on principle.

The results are interesting. By a 13-point margin, Republicans want the a candidate who they agree with, even if that candidate can’t win, but on the second question, about whether they want someone who compromises to get things done or “stands” on principles, Republicans are essentially split, at 47-45 for “standing.”

What the Times has found, in other words, is that voters go back and forth on whether they want compromises to get half a loaf (and who doesn’t go back and forth on that), but are clear that they want their leaders to stick to their principles in their rhetoric, and not appear to be weak. A bit like a poll that discovers teenage boys like beer and girls in bikinis.

Like most media, it seems to me, both the pollster and the Times long for some sort of mythical post-partisanship scenario, and are forever condemned to be frustrated with voters and politicians for not actually living the myth. In the end, the Times sounds like Kenny Brockelstein, and that says more about them than us.

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