OWS “Poll”: It’s Either a Piece of Crap or the Caricatures Have More Truth Than We’ll Like

Eager as he always is to cast Barack Obama and the Democratic party in a negative light, this morning Glen Greenwald pushed around what is claimed to be a poll of Occupy Wall Street activists. The only link I can find to the “poll” is here. This “poll” is, in short, a joke.

The only methodological note is this:

Conducted October 14-18, 2011. Based on interviews with 301 respondents. Response rate 78%.

There is not a campaign in America, Republican or Democratic, that would spend 9 cents on a poll with that description of methodology.  What kind of interviews? Phone? If so, how were people identified as “Occupy Wall Street?” And for the purposes of this poll, who is “Occupy Wall Street?” Is it people who claim an affiliation with it? Is it people standing in Zuccotti Park? Is it people only in New York City, or does it also include activists at OWS actions in other cities and towns? Were interviews done in person? By whom? How were the interviewers trained? When did they conduct interviews? Why isn’t there a date on the topline results so we know when it was released? If it was just released this weekend, why did it take two weeks after the conclusion of interviews to release the results?

Those questions came to me as fast as I could type them. If I took a few more minutes I could probably come up with ten more that would generally be answered in the methodology notes of any reputable poll but are not addressed in this one.

This poll may be reputable, but based on the paucity of information provided and the obvious methodological challenges that aren’t addressed, I’m skeptical it’s good for anything other than obfuscation or media attention for the assistant professor who put it out. Besides, a sample of 301 is a joke; I’d estimate the margin of error with such a small sample, but since the person who produced the numbers doesn’t even define his population, there’s no way to determine the population size and thus the margin of error.

But even if this poll is methodologically sound, I wouldn’t want to push this around unless I wanted to undermine the idea that the protestors are the other 99%. According to the “poll,” 27% didn’t vote in 2008 (which it some cases may be because the respondent was not yet 18). Of those who did vote, 11% voted for someone other than Obama or McCain (compared to less than 2% of the electorate). 22% don’t intend to vote for Congress in 2012, and 32% intend to vote for someone other than a Democrat or Republican. A combined 34% say they most associate with the Green Party, Socialist Party or some other party besides the Democrats and Republicans, and 39% say they identify with no party. 80% say they are slightly to very liberal, yet only 60% of the entire sample said they voted for Obama; in 2008 only 22% of the electorate identified as liberal, but they voted 89% for Obama.

The respondents to this poll don’t reflect the 99% demographically, either. The poll respondents were 68% white, versus 64% in the 2010 census. The respondents were only 10% black and 10% hispanic, versus a nation that’s 16% hispanic and 13% black. Only Asians were represented in a higher percentage than their share of the national population. And if this poll is of New York City OWS activists, it’s even more out of whack since New York City is much more racially diverse than the country as a whole.

Oh, it’s also almost 60-40 men over women.

I don’t accept that, as currently described, this “poll” tells us much of anything about the Occupy Wall Street movement; it doesn’t even include a definition of “Occupy Wall Street” so we have no idea which groups opinion it’s supposed to reflect. But if it is an accurate instrument of some meaningful definition of Occupy Wall Street, it’s politically problematic, because it would mean that the caricatures of the OWS movement as a bunch of politically marginal people far outside the American mainstream would have more truth to it than most of us would like.

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7 Responses to OWS “Poll”: It’s Either a Piece of Crap or the Caricatures Have More Truth Than We’ll Like

  1. I don’t get why you’re in such a lather about the what the poll reveals; it seems to reflect pretty well my impression of the OWS movement as I understand it from the events I’ve attended: Mostly college educated; self-described very liberal; voted for Obama in 08 but underwhelmed by him since and not really inspired to vote for him again; prefers Democrats over Republicans if made to choose between them; feels country is going in the wrong direction, etc. I get that the sample is low, but not why this poll is supposed to be so non-representative?

    • Dana Houle says:

      I think the key point here is that this group of respondents mostly don’t feel they’re “made to choose” between Democrats and Republicans. Less than 1-2% of the electorate ever vote for parties to the left of Democrats, but 20% of this sample claims to identify with the Socialist party (which isn’t even on the ballot in probably 95% of Congressional races and almost never in a competitive race) or the Greens. I find that a problem if it is representative, because if the various OWS groups continue to advocate consensus, they’ll not get consensus that’s consistent with views that will have widespread appeal and acceptance. Furthermore, looking at the expected vote in 2012 shows a quarter don’t plan to vote, and a third say they’re voting for someone other than a Democrat or Republican. That means they have no intention or expectation of influencing politics and policy through any electoral means. Electoral means aren’t the only way to influence politics and policy; in fact, the biggest (and hugely positive) effect of OWS so far has been to push inequality in to the media coverage so we’re no longer just talking about cutting whether to cut government spending. [I think they've been less successful at pushing accountability and the socialization of risk/privatization of reward discussion on to the nightly newscasts, although I don't assail them for not achieving that, because that's a much tougher task and this also hasn't been going on for all that long.] But there won’t be any change without an electoral component. If the national discussion is being driven in part by a group of people who are disproportionately inclined to opt-out of participating in the two-party coalition building reality of American politics and probably include a lot of people who adhere to the extreme Naderesque view that there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, they could either inadvertently play right in to the hands of those hoping OWS helps the Republicans, or worse, whichever group was “polled” (and I suspect it was the Zuccotti Park group) may include a large contingent of political monkey-wrenchers who want to deliberately undermine Democrats, which regardless of whatever cynical or utopian views they may have of US politics, will in result in the problems they’re protesting not get better, but get worse.

    • Dana Houle says:

      Oh, and as for “non-representative,” I’m not sure it’s non-representative of whichever population they set out to sample, because I don’t know the population. I know, however, that it’s not representative of a wider swath of America, the “we are the 99%” on whose behalf many of the the protestors claim to be speaking. They’ve tapped in to a wide-spread and justified anger about unaccountable plutocrats and accelerating inequality and a political system that’s not effectively addressed either problem. My concern is that if these results are representative of the people driving the protests, than the possible directions for change they find appealing are not ones that are likely to be fruitful or that will galvanize and retain greater support for the cause. In short, the 99% need a movement and a set of political goals–not all electoral, but nevertheless including a viable electoral component–that serve them, but a group committed to consensus that has over half saying they’re either not going to vote or they’re going to vote for minor parties is a goal that will lead to not only failure but most likely greater harm than what has already occurred.

  2. Dana, for once I don’t agree with you.

    I have no idea if this poll is an accurate representation of OWS, and I don’t question the methodological flaws.

    But I don’t know that the results are wrong on their face.

    On racial demographics in particular, I do think the Obama years have revealed a real distinction in America between the white left and people of color. The white left is much more de jure ideological, people of color are more de facto liberals who don’t consciously translate their views into an ideological framework. There are a LOT of people of color, a massive percentage really, who almost always vote for Democrats and take what political activists recognize as clearly liberal positions on a wide array of individual issues, but don’t call themselves “liberal” or identify with consciously liberal activists. I suspect OWS is comprised of much more the former than the latter, and it wouldn’t surprise me if OWS activists are much whiter than the Democratic Party.

    Beyond race, it wouldn’t surprise me if OWS demographics skew away from that of mainstream votesr on party self-ID, voting behavior or participation, and ideological self-ID. Protesters aren’t always a cross-section of a larger group or society as a whole. And that DOESN’T speak poorly of the movement at all, or prevent it from being effective in driving the national conversation, even if it creates a risk of ultimately failing to produce whatever results its participants desire.

    • Dana Houle says:

      I don’t really disagree with your overall comment, but it’s the final sentence that zeroes in on what concerns me. If these results are an accurate snapshot of the views of the mass of protestors as it is currently constituted, the there’s the obvious danger that American liberals and leftists will squander a precious moment where the catalyzing protests could evolve in to a much more powerful movement for political change–which shouldn’t be exclusively electoral but which to translate in to policy change will require an electoral component–that can make common ground with the non-ideological angry “middle” that so often decides elections. No, in fact the danger is greater than simply squandering an opportunity, because if the protestors are that skewed outside the mainstream it would mean the OWS movement could be driven or controlled by those most committed to less mainstream views who would leverage their power to deny consensus to any positions that are compatible with Democratic success, and possible push positions that would actually cause great harm.

      Despite the ubiquitous presence and influence of ANSWER at big-city anti-war rallies in 2002-2003, I’ll bet if you did a survey of the crowds at rallies in NYC, DC, LA etc, you’d find the crowds much more representative of American liberals and even moderates than you see in this “poll.” What worries me is that a call for reversing the plutocrat-driven policies of inequality and inequity has the potential for being more unifying than was the early opposition to the Iraq war, but seizing that opportunity may lay in the hands of people who rather than using the opportunity to create a majority coalition would prefer to use it to advance sectarian goals.

      I know there’s tremendous potential for widespread support to take further what OWS has started. I hope the people currently getting the attention for getting things started are capable of rising to the opportunity to advance the common good.

  3. fleetadmiralj says:

    This looks like a different survey from one I saw done (also of rather questionable ideology) a couple weeks ago, but the results pretty much reflect that poll:

    OWS appears to be a group that largely 1) didn’t vote in 2008/2010, 2) Doesn’t plan to vote in 2012, or if they do, they won’t vote for anyone who can win, 3) basically dislikes everyone, 4) doesn’t even know what they’re talking about on half the issues they’re protesting over.

    I mean, I sympathize with them, I think the attention they get is helping to push uncomfortable issues like the wealth gap to the forefront.

    I didn’t read GG’s piece, but I can take a guess at what it says: It somehow proves that Obama has lost mainstream liberals or whatnot. However, I think the real conclusion is that, at least as far as voting behavior is concerned, OWS was never mainstream liberal in the first place. Some of their positions may be in line, but they act more like emoprogs – being either politically apathetic or inflexibly purist.

  4. Dana Houle says:

    I don’t know if Greenwald wrote a post about the poll; if so, your guess is probably correct. I saw it in a tweet.

    As for the “true nature” of OWS, the problem with characterizing it is that, to get a bit Clintonian here, what is the definition of “it?” In a lot of cases the numbers of people involved are quite small; on NPR this morning they reported something about Nashville, where if I heard correctly the overnight crowd was only about 20 people. Now, two immediate reactions to that. First, 20 people is not a lot, even for overnight. But on the other hand, 20 people managed to work their way in to the national feed of NPR.

    I think the people sleeping outside at night are probably disproportionately young, probably quite disaffected, and righteously angry. But there’s a much, MUCH wider group of Americans, millions I’m sure, who have identified with OWS in its current Rorshach incarnation, where people are able to attribute to “it” what they want. I’m sure there are similarities, but I think there are also probably big differences between the group in Zuccotti Park and those in small towns across America, the Oakland group, the Chicago group, the other major groups I’ve heard or read about in Portland, in Denver, in Boston and the other cities that are the usual suspects for these things.

    What I would love to start reading about are OWS events in Wichita and Dayton, Orlando and Savannah, Utica and Manchester, Fresno and Los Cruces and in small towns that don’t have a big college. I’m not sure that will happen, and it certainly won’t happen as long as the movement, such as it is, remains leaderless and beholden to consensus. At some point someone is going to have to tell some guy to quit beating on a plastic bucket at 11:00 PM, someone will have to get porta-potties, someone will have to be in charge of dealing with the police or the media. These things may never happen, and that might not be a disaster or even a big disappointment, because OWS has, at least for a few weeks, changed the discussion in the media and among Americans. But I’d love to see this be a catalyst for something bigger and good.

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