Here are two of the weirdest polling releases I’ve seen in a long time. And both concern the Russian invasion of Ukraine – not exactly a trivial issue.
The first is a Gallup survey from yesterday with findings on American views on the Ukraine conflict that (unwittingly, it seems) leaves the subject more mysterious than ever.
Gallup reports that, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, “52% of Americans [saw] the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a critical threat to U.S. vital interests. That’s a change from 2015, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, when less than half of U.S. adults, 44%, thought it posed that serious a threat.”
Keep in mind that “vital” literally means needed to ensure the physical survival, or at least the independence of the country. And even if respondents didn’t have that particular definition in mind, surely they equated the term with first-order importance. In either case, you’d think logically that at least a sizable portion of those viewing the Ukraine conflict as a “vital threat” would support a U.S. military response.
But in this survey, Gallup never even posed the question. And its additional queries created even more confusion. Chiefly, a big plurality (47 percent) favored keeping the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “where it is now” – even though the challenges facing the alliance obviously have grown dramatically.
Another 18 percent did favor an increase to the commitment. But the same share of respondents wanted it decreased. And 13 percent supported “withdrawing entirely.” “Go figure” seems to be what Gallup is suggesting.
The second bizarro poll was conducted by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Between February 18 and February 21 (the day Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered troops to enter eastern Ukraine), these pollsters asked American adults whether they thought the United States should play a “major,” “minor,” or “no role” in the situation between Russia and Ukraine.” What on earth does that mean?
For the record, 26 percent backed a major role, 52 percent a minor role, and twenty percent no role. That sure sounds like strong opposition to a step as dramatic and fraught with peril as joining a conflict with a nuclear-armed superpower. But these results say absolutely nothing about what kind of role should or shouldn’t be played, which matters a lot because the range is so wide among sending troops, expressing rhetorical support, and all the options in between. And why ignore the troops question in the first place?
Not that all pollsters have sidestepped the issue. The YouGovAmerica firm conducted a survey for The Economist of U.S. adult citizens earlier this month – between February 5 and 8. It found that by a 55 percent to 13 percent, respondents considered it a “bad idea” versus a “good idea” to “send soldiers to Ukraine to fight Russian soldiers.” Fully a third weren’t sure.
But even this survey wasn’t devoid of weirdness. Chiefly, YouGov asked about the option of “Sending soldiers to Ukraine to provide help, but not to fight Russian soldiers.” Granted, the actual Ukraine war was still a hypothetical at that point. But what gave the pollsters the idea that this option was remotely realistic? Or prudent, given the tendency of large-scale fighting to become larger scale fighting, and embroil nearby regions and populations. (The public was split almost exactly into thirds among the “good idea,” “bad idea” and “not sure” alternatives.)
Politicians are fond of bragging that they don’t make policy based on polls. At least when it comes to the war and peace decisions presented by the Ukraine conflict, these surveys make clear that’s something to be grateful for.