A Note on #Occupy Polling Numbers
For the last few weeks I’ve been meaning to find a moment to write a brief editorial on the poll numbers that the Occupy movement has been generating since its inception in September. Today’s boston.com piece on the just-released Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll on Occupy Boston impels me to say something on the subject at last. And I have a pretty simple message on such polls … that is, for a brand new grassroots political movement, Occupy is doing a tremendous job of winning the support of large swaths of the American populace. For example, the Boston Globe poll shows that 41 percent of Massachusetts residents support the Occupy movement. 38 percent disapprove, and 21 percent aren’t sure what they think yet.
One would be hard pressed to find another social force with that kind of support after 3 months. And in fact, most political movements never manage to win so many hearts and minds so quickly. Or at such levels. Including the Tea Party movement - often considered the right-wing counterpart of the Occupy movement. A quick look at a number of national polls shows that the Tea Party has generally had between the high teens and low thirties percent public support. While Occupy has consistently polled between the low thirties and low forties percent support.
The same numbers have clearly been reflected in state level polls like the Globe poll. Which begs the question, if Occupy is doing so well why does the mainstream media consistently read the poll numbers as an indication that the movement is not doing well?
Why do headlines talk about “split” support? Rather than telling the truth on the polling numbers: Occupy is a growing and wildly popular social movement that is having a profound effect on the national discourse on inequality and pushing the entire public debate to the left.
And why doesn’t most of the press mention that not only is the Occupy movement the most popular social movement in existence today, but it’s also more popular than other societal institutions? TheUMass Lowell/Boston Herald poll [link to PDF file] on the new movement - despite being spun as another example of “low support” or “split public opinion” on Occupy - showed quite clearly that Occupy is more popular that the Tea Party, yes. And wildly more popular than “Wall Street and large corporations” and “the government in Washington.”
So what do we pin the problems with these polls and their media interlocutors on? Sloppiness? Ideology? I’m betting more the latter than the former, but either way my admonition to Open Media Boston viewers is: always read the original poll reports for yourselves. Not just the executive summary of the poll, and certainly not the mainstream media coverage of the poll. Go directly to the website of the polling company or university think tank that conducted the poll, and read over the full findings of the poll. Also, look at the methodology used, the nature of the questions that were asked by the poll, the background of the pollsters, who their other clients are, and try to get a sense of how biased the poll is and in what political direction that bias runs. Then try to figure out how much you trust or don’t trust the numbers and the conclusions drawn on the numbers. If you disagree, say so. Loudly, frequently and publicly.
Polls can be valuable measures of public opinion. Or propaganda instruments. Depends on many factors, including the ones mentioned above.
But polls do not determine the success or failure of social movements. People do. Which is why it’s important that Occupy supporters become savvy poll readers. Because it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions about the state of a social movement from a poll spun negatively by the opposition - in this case, corporations and their partisans in media and government.
I think that’s a good reason for the Occupy movement to commission its own polls - and conduct them in a very transparent way. As a signpost to the kind of democratic public discourse that the Occupy movement is fighting for. And as a useful corrective to badly done - and badly spun - polls.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston