Anger is a funny thing.
Measurement of public “anger,” that is. It can produce wildly different results: Witness the two-thirds of Americans who are described as “angry” in the Gallup/USA Today poll out today, vs. the 22 percent angry in a CBS News poll last week. The simple reason is what you ask.
Gallup asks people if they are “generally content” or if there’s “something you would say you are angry about.” Lots of people clearly can find something to be angry about; Gallup had 40 percent angry even in the relatively heady days of January 2000.
CNN, for its part, asks people if they are “very angry, somewhat angry, not very angry or not angry at all.” Add up the “very” and “somewhat” and you also can get a big number – 64 percent last October and 75 percent a year earlier, as the economic maelstrom blew in. (Both of these, by the way, ask about the way things are going in the country, not specifically about the government – another potential cause of measurement differences.)
Others use a wider range of options. “Enthusiastic, satisfied but not enthusiastic, dissatisfied but not angry, or angry” is a list we first asked in 1992, and CBS uses as well. (Anger “at the way the federal government works” peaked, in our data, at 24 percent in April 1992. It was 18 percent when we last checked in April.)
The Pew Research Center asks people if they’re content, frustrated or angry – again offering a less-intense negative option than angry. (At times we have used angry/not angry, on issue-specific questions on which it seemed weird to ask people if they’re “enthusiastic” – the role of banks in the economic crisis, say, or the Taliban having supported al Qaeda.)
On measuring anger overall, in the Pew, CBS and ABC/Post approaches, you get about two in 10 Americans as angry. In the Gallup and CNN questions, about two-thirds. Big as they are, the differences don’t mean one approach is right or wrong; we can learn from both. They do mean that if you ask people if they’re angry or not, plenty say they are; but if you give them other, less intense options, most take the cooler choice.