Why Your Mood Should Not Depend on Polls

Yesterday I imposed a Total News Blackout on the polls about President Obama’s approval ratings and general election chances. Sure, some little soundbites crept in through Twitter and TV, but really. It’s March.

But I did take a look at the polling on religious freedom, I mean birth control, and found that respondents’ answers really very much depend on how the question is phrased. Yesterday you might have despaired that a majority of Americans think religious institutions should be able to opt out of offering contraception coverage, but voila! Today a Bloomberg poll offers you a jolt of happiness:

There has been recent controversy over whether education and health care facilities affiliated with religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, should provide access to birth control through health insurance plans.  Which of the following describes your view on this debate:

33 This is a matter of religious liberty

62 This is a matter of a woman’s health and access to birth control

5 Not sure

There’s a problem with the Bloomberg wording, though. Nowhere does it say this is a matter between employers and employees. Instead, it asks the respondents to say whether these institutions “should provide access to birth control through health insurance plans.” Couldn’t someone reasonably interpret that question as, “if you go to a Catholic health care provider and your insurance covers birth control, shouldn’t they provide it to you?” Of course! Would someone’s answer be different if the question was about whether these institutions should be required to provide coverage (as opposed to access) for their employees? I don’t know. All I know is that given the disparities in question phrasing, it’s hard to make sense of whether these polls resolve exactly where Americans are on religious exemptions, which probably haven’t been properly explained to them, even as you can confidently conclude the vast majority of Americans do like birth control.

How many Americans think religious institutions should get an exemption from covering contraception for their employees? Or, to put it another way, how many Americans think all women regardless of where they work, should have insurance coverage for co-pay-free contraception? Or whether certain religious groups should get special treatment from the government? The only thing the polls tell us is that people are open to being persuaded… based on the phrasing.