Keep it Simple Stupid – Except When Keeping it Simple is Stupid

I’ve written a little bit about how to make questions simple. Gallup recently asked a very simple question, nationwide:

“Would you favor or oppose making Washington, D.C., a separate state?”

The headline for the article describing the data was, “Americans Reject D.C. Statehood.” Just 29% of Americans support this, versus 64% who oppose it, and 7% who don’t know. Every demographic group rejects it, including liberals by +10 points and Democrats by 12 points (and they are the groups with the highest levels of support.)

This is an instance where I worry that the question is perhaps too simple to accurately gauge opinion, however. While it may be obvious to the mostly DC-centric and civically-educated readers of this blog (e.g., people on my Facebook feed who haven’t blocked me yet), what percent of people nationwide do you think understand that the main reason for statehood would be to give DC the same representation in Congress that everyone else has? Probably very few, especially outside of the east coast.

Or actually, here’s another question – what percent of people do you think know that DC isn’t simply in another state? We’re always learning facts about the American public’s attention span when it comes to politics, such as 37% of Americans being able to name their own representative or 6% of Americans (in 2000) knowing the then-Speaker of the House. So I think it is pretty likely that a reasonable amount of people in states like, say, New Hampshire or Iowa or California, assume that DC is in Maryland or Virginia. If they assume that, wrongly, then this question makes about as much as sense as asking, “Would you favor or oppose making Oklahoma City a separate state?”

So at the very least, I think you have to say something like:

“As you may or may not know, Washington D.C. is the only city in the United States that is not part of another state. Would you favor or oppose making Washington, D.C., a separate state?”

Is that enough, then? Well, Americans might reject D.C. statehood, even knowing this, but there’s still no reason to assume Americans are even aware of the arguments surrounding D.C. statehood or the nature of the conflict. I’d even argue that “don’t know” as an option doesn’t quite cut it either – because people don’t know that they don’t know. I wouldn’t support, say, the blanket legalization of drugs if you asked me. I wouldn’t even say that I don’t know. But if you start giving me some examples, as un-spun as possible, as to what some of the reasons are that people say drugs should be legalized, I might start to change my mind – or, rather, I might start to form an opinion.

The dilemma here is, then, what argument do you present to at least give the necessary context to decide whether to support D.C. becoming a state, without appearing to be (or actually being) biased? I might try:

“As you may or may not know, Washington D.C. is the only city in the United States that is not part of another state. Some have said that Washington D.C. should become a state because [X]. Others say that Washington D.C. should remain an independent city because [Y]. Knowing that, would you favor or oppose making Washington, D.C., a separate state?”

Are we good yet? Maybe – but NOW the problem is that people are quite adept at picking up on partisan cues. I’m not sure if that’s the case in the pro- vs anti-statehood arguments, but on more frequently-debated issues (e.g., gun control, abortion, whether we should incarcerate babies without proper care and supervision, etc.), people may be simply gravitating to the talking points that they are used to hearing justify their point of view. So I’d try to make the [X] and [Y] as neutral as possible, but they still have to accurately reflect what the good faith position is of both sides.

Finally, let me take one last stab:

“It’s complete bullshit that Washington D.C. doesn’t have any representation is Congress, and the only reason people pretend to oppose D.C. statehood is because they know it would lead to two more Democratic Senators, which it would, but guess what, that’s the entire point of representation – right?”

In conclusion: simplicity is hard.

3 thoughts on “Keep it Simple Stupid – Except When Keeping it Simple is Stupid

  1. Would there be value added results to analyze if two questions were asked?

    1. Were you aware that Washington D.C. is the only city in the United States that is not part of another state?

    2.Would you favor or oppose making Washington, D.C., a separate state?

    I’ll bet there would be significant differences in the approve / disapprove percentages between those who knew this ahead of time and those who didn’t. Care to comment?

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      1. Someday talk to me about it. I think there’d be significant differences between someone who already is familiar with the issue and someone hearing about it for the first time. You no doubt know a lot about the concept as it relates to issues in general, not just DC statehood. I’d be interested to discuss it with you over diet cokes.

        Like

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