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Dear Pollsters, You Are Wrong

Linda Hirshman is a retired Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at Brandeis University and a columnist for She is at work on Victory!, a book about the gay revolution.

First off, I do think math is hard. So I am reluctant to question the suits--pollster Peter Hart, the guys at NBC, much less people whose institution is named after Wall Street. When the news filled up with word of their WSJ/NBC News poll showing Americans care more about "keeping the budget deficit down" (58 percent) than "boosting" the economy (35 percent), I was dismayed, but not inclined to doubt. Great, I thought, as the still troubling unemployment numbers followed the polling news, the public are a bunch of deficit hawks. 1937 here we come. Those who do not study history, etc.

Still, it's hard to keep a retired professor from looking at the original documents, which, happily, appear online here. Turns out the poll is really weird, to use a technical term for misleading and probably also harmful. The deficit hawks turned up in only one question:

"Which of the following statements comes closer to your point of view?"

Statement A: The President and the Congress should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future.

Statement B: The President and the Congress should worry more about keeping the budget deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.

Thirty-five percent picked A, and 58 percent picked B. Looks straightforward enough, right? But it's probably worth looking at the rest of the poll, which finds that even though people embraced the deficit hawk's "point of view" when flying around "worrying," when they landed on the ground, their concerns were exactly the opposite. When asked to rank what should be the "top priority for the federal government," 31 percent of the same people revealed that "job creation and economic growth" should be the top priority of the federal government (they had eight options to choose from). The deficit and government spending ranked second at 19 percent, with trivial matters like national security and terrorism trailing out of sight. When asked to combine their first two concerns, the numbers are even stronger for job creation and economic growth: 54 percent for growth to 34 percent for the deficit.

Not satisfied with asking about the government's entire list of tasks, the pollsters then asked their subjects to rank economic issues alone: "I'd like to list some economic issues. As of right now, which one do you feel is the most important economic issue facing the country?"  Number one: unemployment, at 35 percent, followed by the federal budget deficit at 24 percent, and health care, gas prices, etc., trailing behind.

As I said, I am not a pollster. There may be polling reasons for the inconsistent results. But I am a philosopher. And I recognize people's ancient and persistent inclination to see themselves having the most idealistic, self-sacrificing "point of view." Get those deficits down, or at least worry about them! Gluttony is a sin, and the talking heads keep reminding us that we behaved irresponsibly in our personal finances.

But when asked to behave like citizens, responsible for a government, it's quite a different story. What is our top priority as a government? Job creation and economic growth. And the top priority of the media should be to report that's what they said.

--Linda Hirshman

Click here to read Jonathan Chait on the new Obama polls.

Click here to read William Galston on the polls.