Blame and the Beer Summit

Jul 30, 2009 11:59am

With tonight’s Beer Summit on tap, two new polls touch on the Gates/Crowley issue – with a difference in results worth exploring.

An NBC/WSJ poll (Friday-Monday) finds more Americans saying the Cambridge incident was more Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s fault (27 percent) than Officer James Crowley’s (11 percent), with plenty blaming both equally (29 percent) and a large number, 33 percent, withholding judgment.

The Pew Research Center, in interviews Monday night only, asked a similar question but did not offer “both equally,” instead taking it only as a volunteered response. In this formulation, one number is different: blame on Crowley is higher, essentially equaling Gates’.

     Who was more at fault?         NBC/WSJ  PewGates     27%     27%Crowley   11      25Both*     29      10 Neither    -       3No opin.  33      36

*”Both” offered by NBC/WSJ, taken as vol. only by Pew.

Whether to include a “both equally” response in this kind of issue is often a matter of consternation to pollsters. On one hand, if it seems like a highly plausible view, it can be wise to offer it; on the other, doing so could let people avoid stating their true opinion by taking the neutral middle ground. (Academic researchers generally vouch for a middle-ground approach.) The best we can say here, and tentatively, is that the two results taken together suggest that people who are inclined to blame both equally are more apt mainly to blame Crowley when not offered the middle ground.

There’s a racial division: in the NBC/WSJ data 4 percent of blacks, compared with 32 percent of whites, say Gates was more at fault; 30 percent of blacks, compared with 7 percent of whites, mainly blame Crowley. But this is not enormous polarization; at about three in 10, the number of whites who mainly blame Gates, and blacks who mainly blame Crowley, are far from majorities. And it appears that about equal numbers of blacks and whites alike either blame both equally, or have no opinion. (We’ve asked NBC/WSJ for that data.)

Pew’s poll had too small a sample for a racial breakdown. It did find more Americans disapproving than approving of how the president has handled the issue, but again with a lot withholding judgment (29 percent approve, 41 percent disapprove, 30 percent no opinion).

In a separate Wednesday-Sunday poll, Pew notes that Obama’s overall approval rating among whites “slipped” from 53 percent in Wednesday-Thursday interviews to 46 percent in their Friday-Sunday interviews. (It was 52 percent among whites in our own poll two weeks ago.) This is a bit dicey sampling-wise, and perhaps a stretch to pin it on Gates since Obama’s been declining all by himself. Pew has him at 54 percent approval among all Americans; other polls this week, completed within a day of each other, have had him from 53 percent (NBC/WSJ) to 58 percent (CBS/Times).

Pew also finds that 79 percent have heard at least something about Obama’s comments on the Gates situation; 46 percent have heard “a lot” about it.

All these polls match ours of July 18 on the underlying dynamic – growing criticism of Obama on the economy, along with compunctions about health care reform.

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