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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nonattitudes and the GOP Contest

In our chapter on public opinion, we discuss "nonattitudes," the answers that people give to pollsters even when they don't really have an opinion about the subject at hand. At The New Republic, Jonathan Bernstein touches on this concept when looking at the seemingly abrupt shifts in support for GOP presidential candidates.

This doesn’t represent exceptionally irrational behavior on the part of GOP primary voters, either. After all, unless they live in Iowa or New Hampshire, voters won’t ever be choosing from this unwieldy ten candidate (or so) field, and the odds are good that for most Republicans, in most states, they’ll never have to make any choice since the nomination will be wrapped up before it gets to them. So why should they waste their time trying to figure out which one is the “real” conservative? Why go through the painful business of choosing sides? Picking a horse entails (as Democrats might recall from four years ago) finding things to dislike about a politician who you actually have nothing at all against, used to like, and will like again in the future. Not to mention potentially taking sides against your friends and neighbors, instead of agreeing with them about politics as you normally do (since most of us are surrounded much of the time by co-partisans). Much better to avoid the risk of cognitive dissonance and ignore the whole thing or treat it as entertainment until decision time comes. And with any luck, you can skip it and go straight to the part where you get to go back to disliking Barack Obama.

In other words, the reason polls can jump around so much this far in advance of the voting in most states is that pushing people to pick a candidate creates a temporary preference where one may not have existed before the respondent answered the phone. The results are most likely merely an artifact of the fact of polling. And if the polls don’t reflect firm decisions, then there’s no reason to believe that the voters really want Newt.