Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Preference for boy babies still with us in U.S.

The issue of parents’ preference for boys over girls in countries around the world has been widely in the news.  One key fact:  the ratio of boy children to girl children ends up being much higher than would be predicted by natural processes in some countries. One report suggests that there are 60 million “missing” girls in Asia as a result of the boy preference. 

This preference for a boy rather than a girl is not confined to Asia.  There continues to a definable, albeit slight, preference for boy babies in this country.  Asked about a hypothetical situation in which they could have only one child, 37% of Americans say they would want it to be a boy, 28% a girl, while the rest say it wouldn’t matter.

These preferences are almost identical to what Gallup measured 66 years ago in 1941.  This could provide support for those who would theorize about an underlying evolutionary basis for a boy preference.  Or it could support more sociological theories focusing on the hypothesis that the U.S. continues to be a male-dominated, patriarchical society.

The overall preference for a boy baby among Americans is caused by men's strong preference for a boy.  Women, on the other hand, do not reciprocate by having a strong preference for a girl.

Our most recent analysis of these data included a fascinating question which asked Americans why they preferred a boy or a girl -- to be discussed on galluppoll.com Thursday.

Monday, July 2, 2007
Potential problems looming ahead for Hillary?

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s great strength comes among lower income, lower educated voters, and among blacks and Hispanics. This may suggest potential problems looming ahead for the New York Senator.

The data are clear.  If the 2008 presidential election were confined to non-Hispanic whites, Clinton would lose to Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani by a significant margin. If the election were confined to Hispanic and black voters, Clinton would win going away.  Additionally, Clinton does better against Giuliani among voters with lower levels of education, and among those with lower incomes.

This in and of itself is not highly unusual. Democratic candidates typically do better in general elections among lower income, lower educated segments, and among minorities. 

But Clinton’s appeal skews downscale even within those who are Democrats.  Contrasted to Sen. Barack Obama, for example, Clinton does much better among Democrats who have lower levels of education and lower incomes. Additionally, despite the fact that Obama is the first black candidate in U.S. history to be given a serious chance of winning a major party’s nomination, Clinton essentially gets just as many voters from black Democrats as does Obama.

A politician such as Hillary Clinton whose strength appears to be based on her appeal to minorities and those who are less well-educated faces several interesting challenges. 

First, there is a real chance that Clinton’s strength as reflected in the polls has a chance of deteriorating as the campaign wears on. 

Why?  Name identification. At this stage of the campaign candidates’ positioning in the polls in part reflects how well known they are.  Less well educated voters are least likely to have great familiarity with numerous candidates.  So their voting patterns at this point in the campaign are particularly apt to skew towards the most highly known.  Hillary Clinton has near 100% name ID and is known by everyone.  So she shines among those who are less well attached to the daily news grid. 

This includes Hispanics.  Gallup’s Jeff Jones recently showed the degree to which Hispanics in this country have much lower overall recognition of any candidates other than Clinton.  So she shines among Hispanics.

The problem for Clinton is that the name identification of other candidates has no where to go but up.  Those with lower levels of education – including Hispanics --  will get to know the other candidates better as the campaigns reach white-hot intensities in the primaries and in the national election in the fall of 2008.  The playing field, in other words, will be more level.  Clinton has a chance of losing some of her current advantage as the election wears on.

Then there is turnout.  Clinton’s appeal is centered in segments of American society with historically lower voting turnout percentages. It’s relatively more difficult – everything else being equal – to translate strength of positioning among minorities and those with lower levels of education into actual votes on Election Day .  It's easier to take advantage of strength among segments of the American society who are more routine and regular voters.   

It's possible that Clinton will turn this on its head.  She may be able to mobilize those groups among whom she currently has great strength to turn out in unusually high numbers.  If so, she will tap into the type of campaign strategy that was successful for George W. Bush in 2000 – increasing turnout among those already predisposed to vote for him (in his case, the religious right). But her ability to accomplish this is by no means a certainty.

Clinton's strength among women, on the other hand, has few problems attached.  A tilt in voting towards Clinton among Republican and Independent women could be a very valuable asset on Election Day.

Thursday, June 28, 2007
Big business in big trouble

Big is bad.

That’s the message from Americans.  Those of you reading this post who work for “big” anything should hide.  Become small as soon as possible.

Gallup’s annual confidence in institutions update shows that just 18% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in big business. That’s an all-time low. 

But look what happens when we substitute the word “small” in front of business.  Miraculously, confidence jumps to 59%. Big is bad.  Small is good. 

The same confidence in institutions poll shows that Americans have much more confidence in “the medical system” than in HMOs.  Presumably Americans see the medical system as their local doctors and nurses, rather than behemoth organizations trying to control how they we get and pay for health care. Perhaps HMOs should re-name themselves SHOs.   “Small Health Organizations”.

Who do Americans blame for the rising price of gas?  Big oil.  What health related organization has one of the lowest negatives of any major industry sector tested?  Big pharma – the pharmaceutical companies.

This distrust on the part of the American public has more than passing interest.  There’s evidence that Americans’ distrust of big business makes it an easy target for reformers eager to fix societal ills.  For example, Americans tend to be all in favor of solutions to the healthcare situation that force big business to shoulder more of the burden for their employee’s health needs. 

All of this means that there will be great support from the people when someone suggests solutions to problems that involve sticking it to big business and industry.  Big business, in other words, has a real public relations challenge. And this comes at a time when many CEOs are casting about looking for mergers and acquisitions to make themselves even bigger.

Despite Iraq, Americans still confident in military

Americans still have a great deal of confidence in the military.  This is despite the fact that the U.S. is now involved in a war that the majority of Americans say is a mistake and is going badly. 

Sixty-nine percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military.  That’s down some from the high point of 82% in June 2003.  But it’s still at the top of the list in a year in which confidence in almost every institution in America has declined.

The war in Iraq remains the most important problem facing the nation according to the American people. A majority of Americans continue to say that the war in Iraq was a mistake.  A majority want some type of timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.  A majority say the war is going badly for the U.S.

Yet the military remains the institution in which Americans have most confidence. By comparison, the civilian leadership who put the military into Iraq gets very low confidence ratings.  Twenty five percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the presidency.  Fourteen percent have confidence in Congress. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Sorry, being an only child isn't ideal

If you were an only child growing up, you did not have an ideal situation.  You would have been better off with 1.5 siblings. 

That’s according to Gallup’s latest update on a question George Gallup began asking way back in 1936 -- one of the first questions Gallup ever asked:  “What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have?”

In 1936, Americans said that 3.6 children in a family was ideal.  Well over half said that having 3 or more kids was ideal.  In fact, a third said having 4 or more was ideal.  Only 2% said that having an only child was ideal.

Fast forward to today.  The ideal is 2.5 children.  Only 9% of Americans say that having 4 or more is ideal.  (Hmm.  I have four children).  A third say having 3 or more is ideal.  (Hmm.  I am one of three children.)  A little more than half of Americans say that two children is ideal. Again, as was the case in the 1930s, very few – 3% -- of Americans say that having an only child is ideal.

This whole issue of the number and order of children in a household has been very much in the news recently.  Widely covered research results indicate that being a first born is correlated with having a slightly higher IQ.  (Hmm.  I’m the second born.)  But being first born doesn’t preclude having younger siblings.  In fact, Professor Robert Zajonc, a very smart professor at Stanford, points out that having younger siblings is a benefit to your IQ.  Why?  Because you get to teach them and explain things to them, which in turn enhances your own IQ.

This might suggest that the perfect position is to be the first born of at least two children. Or as the American public would have it, being the first born of 2.5 children.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Rising tide of "independents" means little at this point

Political consultant Ed Rollins was talking with host Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation Sunday.  The topic:  New York City Mayor’s Mike Bloomberg’s chances if he decides to jump into the presidential race as an independent. 

Among other things, Rollins said:  “And more and more Americans today, and particularly young people, haven’t – aren’t choosing any party.  They say they’re an independent, and they want to stay an independent, and they want independent choices”. 

Rollins’ inference here is that this is a particularly propitious moment for an independent candidate like Bloomberg.  We know Rollins is thinking along those lines based on his opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post. Rollins seems to be saying that Americans are unusually disenchanted with the major political parties, as measured by the high number of those saying they’re independents.

Rollins may be right about the good timing for an independent candidate next year -- in general.  But basing that on the "independents" numbers he cited is wrong.

There is no evidence that the number of Americans today identifying as independents is high - -compared to similar points in the election cycle in previous years. 

It is true that the percent of Americans identifying as independents has increased since election time in 2004.  So what?  That's a natural process. As people get wrapped up in election goings on, they are more likely to identify with one or the other major party.  After the election – between elections, that is – that percentage drops right back down again.

So at the moment we are catching the “up curve” of American's identification as independents.

Look at these numbers. In early November 2004, just before the presidential election, the percentage of Americans identifying as independents was 27%.  Now, in Gallup’s latest poll, the percentage identifying as independents has risen to 38%.   A big jump. So far so good. But, let’s go back in time.  In June 2003, a year and a half before the election (just where we are now) the percentage who were independents averaged 39%! 

Going back further, in early November 2000, the percentage of Americans who claimed to be independents was 34%.  Prior to that, in June 1999, it averaged 42%.   Again, high numbers of independents in the year before an election; a drop as the election approaches.

So the current data on independents are not out of line with what we might expect in the June before a presidential year.  They do not – in and of themselves – signal a tremendous groundswell of opportunity for an independent presidential candidate. 

There may be other evidence which shows that Americans will be open to a Mike Bloomberg type candidacy next year. (For one thing, as Rollins points out, when Bloomberg needs money, he doesn't have to fundraise, but instead stops at his neighborhood ATM). But the data on party identification does not signify much at this point.

Thursday, June 21, 2007
Is it "immigration, stupid!"?

I received a succinct comment from a Gallup Guru reader who has a simple solution for why Americans are in such a sour mood, as discussed here. Her theory:  “It's illegal immigration and the proposed amnesty bill, "stupid"!!!”

The “stupid” here (I hope it wasn't referring to the Gallup Guru's author) is most probably an allusion to the famous James Carville admonition in 1992 that the Bill Clinton presidential campaign was all about “..the economy, stupid..”

In this instance I’m not so sure that the reader is right. The data don’t seem to suggest that Americans are overwhelmingly focused on illegal immigration to the extent that it is primarily responsible for the current psychological malaise. 

It is true that 15% of Americans now cite illegal immigration as the most important problem facing the country.  That’s more than doubled from January of this year.  And, asked what government’s top priority should be, 24% of Americans now say illegal immigration, also doubled from earlier this year.   

But in both instances immigration is dominated by the war in Iraq, which is first on both lists. And, taken as a whole, more Americans mention a concern about the economy as the nation’s top problem than mention immigration. 

If one hypothesizes that the country’s malaise is being caused by concern over illegal immigration, we should find a correlation between dissatisfaction and citing illegal immigration as the nation’s top problem.  There isn’t.  I looked carefully and found that those who cite illegal immigration as the nation’s top problem are actually less likely to say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. than are those who cite other problems.   

Additionally, if one hypothesizes that concern over the current immigration bill is causing the malaise, we should find such concern is fairly widespread across the population – enough so that it affects the broad satisfaction numbers. 

Our survey work a few weeks ago showed that, on the contrary, there is not an exceptional amount of attention being paid to the immigration bill.  Plus, about six out of ten Americans told us that they didn’t know enough about the bill to have an opinion on it. 

The morality of embryonic stem cell research

President Bush on Wednesday vetoed the “Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007” in the East Room of the White House. The White House Fact Sheet on Stem Cell Research which accompanied the president’s veto was entitled “Advancing Stem Cell Research While Respecting Moral Boundaries”.

Echoing this title, Bush’s remarks on Wednesday made it clear that -- in his view -- the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 crossed “moral boundaries” that he did not find acceptable.  As Bush said: “I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line.”

The questions in any dispute of this nature, of course, are who makes the decision on what moral line should be crossed and what moral line should not be crossed.  Proponents of the bill – including the majority of the Representatives and Senators in Congress who passed the bill – argue that what the bill proposes is moral.  Bush says it is not.

This type of situation was anticipated by the Founding Fathers.  Following constitutional procedures, unless Congress can muster enough votes to overcome Bush’s veto, his view of morality of embryonic stem cell research wins the day.

What about the American people?  There is no constitutional provision for their wishes to be consulted directly outside of periodic elections.  We today have the ability to measure the public’s views in ways not anticipated by the Founders.  And though these views have no explicit legal standing in the law-making process, it is of importance to understand them.

Included in Gallup’s annual May Moral Values poll is a list of 16 different moral issues.  For each, the public is asked to indicate whether they find the issue in general “morally acceptable or morally wrong.”  Sixty-four percent of Americans said that “medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos” is morally acceptable.  Thirty percent said it was morally wrong.

There  has been no survey research conducted since Wednesday's veto, to my knowledge.  Last year when Bush vetoed a similar bill, 58% of Americans in a Gallup poll said they disapproved.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007
New Gallup data show confidence in Congress at all time low

Just 14% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress. 

This 14% Congressional confidence rating is the all-time low for this measure, which Gallup initiated in 1973.  The previous low point for Congress was 18% at several points in the period of time 1991 to 1994.

Congress is now nestled at the bottom of the list of Gallup's annual Confidence in Institutions rankings, along with HMOs.  Just 15% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in HMOs.  (By way of contrast, 69% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military, which tops the list.  More on this at galluppoll.com on Thursday). 

It’s worth remembering that Congress is basically nothing more than a mechanism for the representation of the people’s wishes. We all can’t go to Washington.  So we elect men and women and send them off in our stead.  It’s not an optimal situation, it seems to me, when such a low percentage of average Americans have confidence in this system. 

Generally speaking, Americans have been skeptical about Congress for decades now.  But the current 14% confidence rating for Congress is down from 19% last year and is the lowest in Gallup’s history, surpassing the 18% confidence in Congress measured in 1991, 1993 and 1994.

Americans' are generally in a sour mood, as discussed here.  The particularly low rating for Congress this year thus represents a continuation of the existing low esteem in which Congress is held, coupled with a strongly negative mindset on the part of the American public.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Revisiting death penalty moratorium results

A survey commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington showed, according to its report, that “…58% of the American population believes it is time for a moratorium on the death penalty…”   Actually, what the study shows is that 58% of Americans can be persuaded by the use of data and evidence and one-sided arguments to support a death-penalty moratorium.  But the survey doesn’t tell us where the public stands if asked neutrally about a moratorium, and it doesn’t tell us how far the public could be pushed to oppose a moratorium if presented with arguments against it. 

This is a good opportunity for you readers of this column to study the actual wording of the survey in question and to arrive at your own conclusions.

The DPIC study received some high visibility courtesy of Newsweek, which headlined its announcement of the results of the poll as follows:  “Poll:  Americans Want Death Penalty Moratorium.”   

The Newsweek article,  written by Kurt Soller, went on to say:  “A new poll by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides analysis on capital punishment, found that 58 percent want a national moratorium on executions.”

The DFIC site itself reports:  “ The report, based on a poll by RT Strategies, found that a majority (58%) of the American population believes it is time for a moratorium on the death penalty while the process undergoes a careful review.”

But the 58% figure, as noted, comes only after respondents within the context of the survey have been confronted with a number of arguments and data in support of the idea of a moratorium.  I think Newsweek’s headline in particular is misleading.  The study doesn’t show that 58% of Americans “want” a national moratorium on executions at all.  It shows that 58% of  Americans “can be persuaded” to support a national moratorium if and when they are presented with detailed and lengthy arguments about why it is a good idea.   

The DFIC did the correct thing and posted the entire survey of which the 58% moratorium question was a part on its website, here.   That allows you the reader an opportunity to look at this survey in detail.

The moratorium question itself was number 13 within the survey.  It was phrased as follows:  “Would you support a national halt to all death penalty executions while the problems that lead to wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences are thoroughly investigated by a blue-ribbon commission?”

Study this question wording carefully.  Note that the writers of the question reminded respondents as the question was being asked that there have been wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences. In courtrooms, this is called "leading the witness". What if the respondent had been led the other way, with a question phrased like this: “Would you support a national halt to all death penalty executions even if this meant that convicted murderers of women and children who have had their sentences upheld by numerous courts through years of appeals would sit in jail at taxpayer expense and not have the wishes of juries and the court carried out?”

I’m not suggesting this second wording, of course.  But I’m pointing out that the way in which a respondent answers a question can certainly be influenced by the assumptions and information that are presented to that respondent in the question wording.

Plus, Q13 asks “Would you support…”  not "Would you support or oppose….” In most instances, it is always preferable to explicitly give respondents both alternatives so as to avoid the presumption that one such response is better than the other.

Furthermore, and this is the more serious issue with the DFIC survey, Q 13 on the moratorium was asked only after the respondents had been subjected to 12 previous questions.  And a number of those questions – in essence – presented arguments in favor of a moratorium.  There were virtually no arguments or reasons presented in the first 12 questions about why a moratorium might not be a good idea.

The reader should carefully read through these 12 questions that came before respondents were asked about the moratorium. A significant percentage of them present in one way or the other information which focuses on problems with the use of the death penalty and the fact that innocent people are often put to death. 

By the time a respondent gets to Q 13 in the sequence, he or she had heard the following:

“As you may know, in recent years many people who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death have been released from death row after new evidence, such as DNA testing shows they could not be guilty of the crime.  They have been exonerated of all charges.  For example, so many people on death row in Illinois were found to be not guily that the state put a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty until the problem could be thoroughly investigated.”

“...in many recent cases juries have incorrectly sentenced people to death who were subsequently found to be not guilty and released from death row..”

“Do you think there is a good chance, some chance, or no real chance that at least one innocent defendant or more has actually been put to death in error over the past 15 years or so?”

“I will read you a list of reasons people might give for OPPOSING the death penalty…” followed by seven detailed and explicit reasons for opposing the death penalty.   [No list of reasons people might give for SUPPORTING the death penalty are read to respondents.]

Then, after all of this, comes Q13 on the moratorium.

The interesting point is that a majority of Americans could in fact favor a moratorium on the death penalty even if the question is asked in a standard, balanced or neutral way.  (Something like:  “Would you favor or oppose a national halt or moratorium on death penalty executions while its use was being investigated by a blue-ribbon commission?”)  We just don't know. 

Gallup did ask a few questions about a death penalty moratorium back in 2001. A majority supported a moratorium when asked a question that included a reference to the fact that Illinois had recently instituted such a moratorium. But the same survey found that less than a majority favored a moratorium in response to a question in which arguments both in favor and against a moratorium were presented to respondents.   

So I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know exactly which side would win if the moratorium issue was put on a national referendum with strong arguments presented to the public both in favor of it and against it.

The DFIC study  does provide useful information if interpreted correctly.  It tells us that if Americans are given a great deal of focused arguments about how the death penalty results in innocent people being executed, they (Americans) can be pushed to the point where 58% will agree with a national halt on executions.  But that's just one piece of the broader puzzle of understanding where Americans stand on this contentious issue.