What Aladdin Tells Us About the Polls

The liberal media had a good laugh this week after a polling firm found that 30% of Republican voters were in favor of bombing the fictional city of Agrabah. Agrabah, they pointed out with unrestrained delight, was the setting for Disney’s 1992 film, Aladdin. So unless Republicans think Jafar is a threat to national security, they chuckled, they are just itching to launch missiles at Arabs of any kind.

Few of them bothered to mention that 19% of Democrats also supported the bombings.

And even fewer of these reporters will take note of a new response poll from WPA Research. This survey shows that 44% of registered Democrats (and 66% of Democrats under the age of 34) support taking in refugees from the mythical city of Agrabah. Republicans may be a little itchy on the military trigger, but Democrats are willing to let anyone in this country as long as they come from somewhere vaguely Middle Eastern.

The real lessons of these polls, though, aren’t really partisan in nature. Nor are they a commentary on the ignorance of the American public. Rather, these polls show something about polls themselves, and they might also say something about us.

It is human nature to want to appear more informed and confident than you really are. This is an inextricable side of our instinct, especially in the United States. No one wants to admit that they haven’t got a clue. That’s why your barber knows exactly what we should do about terrorism. The true national pastime isn’t baseball; it’s trading opinions on anything and everything.

So when someone calls up to ask if you support bombing Agrabah, you don’t want to say, “I have no idea what that is.” So you offer an opinion. And most reasonable Americans, not suspecting a ruse, would figure that it has something to do with the Islamic State. If you’re a Republican who figures it’s a city where ISIS is holed up, the natural response is to support the bombings. If you’re a Democrat who figures it has something to do with Syrians, the natural response is to support bringing in the refugees.

Even if polling firms went out of their way to ensure fairness, we would have reason to question each and every poll released to the press. As it happens, these firms are seldom concerned about leaving their biases aside. They carefully craft their questions – not to get the truest answers, but to get the answers they want.

When it comes to presidential politics, the sheer number of pollsters going after the same information encourages them to stay unbiased. No one wants to be the last polling firm predicting a Jeb Bush victory.

But when it comes to questions that aren’t often asked (whether to bomb Agrabah, for instance), these firms are free to fudge the science a bit. Why would they? For any number of reasons. But it’s enough to know that they do, and that we should be very careful about polls that seem to engineer political opinion rather than discover it.

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