Op-Ed: Polls Matter, But Not How You May Think
A barrage of media outlets recently reported that almost half of Republicans believe Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George Floyd’s death was the wrong verdict.
“Almost half of Republicans say Chauvin jury reached wrong verdict: poll,” wrote The Hill. “Nearly Half of Republicans Think Chauvin Trial Verdict Was Wrong: Poll,” aped Newsweek. Forbes too, reported that “Nearly Half of Republicans Think Derek Chauvin Verdict Was Wrong, Poll Shows.”
And those are closer to the center than most publications!
Considering that fewer than half of Americans actually read beyond the headline, it would be reasonable to conclude from those examples that half of Republicans think Chauvin should not have been found guilty. Now, for the real story.
The source in question, a CBS News poll conducted April 21-24, shows that 46 percent of Republican respondents believed the jury was wrong in finding Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd, while 54 percent agreed with the verdict.
However, there is no indication that the poll asked if respondents thought the jury was correct in finding Chauvin guilty of manslaughter.
Many if not most Americans equate murder with an intent to kill and don’t realize there are other types as well. A death that occurs during the commission of a felony certainly may result in that felon’s conviction for committing something called felony murder.
In the Floyd case, the video evidence indisputably shows how long Chauvin pressed his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck, even after the latter was unconscious. The jury determined that to be third-degree assault, which is a felony. Therefore, Floyd’s death during Chauvin’s felony renders Chauvin guilty of felony murder.
But the poll didn’t explain any of that. Arguably, many Republicans who equate murder with intent to kill thought Chauvin was responsible for Floyd’s death and acted inappropriately but did not necessarily intend to kill him. Thus, they disagreed with the murder charge.
Why, then, did 90 percent of Democrats agree with the murder verdict while only 10 percent disagreed? Do they have a much stronger grasp of nuanced homicide statutes than Republicans do? Hardly. The major parties often differ sharply on whether deadly force by the police is justified.
The Floyd case was an example so extreme that it transcended party and ideology. But many cop-critic Democrats were more prone to agree to any guilty verdict without examining the technicalities, whereas many pro-police Republicans, while acknowledging Chauvin’s transgressions, weren’t about to condone carte blanche condemnation.
CBS News’ headline was much more accurate: “CBS News Poll: Widespread Agreement with Chauvin Verdict,” but its polling, not so much. Despite the 90-10 and 54-46 percentage splits among Democrats and Republicans, respectively, the overall total was 75-25 in favor of the murder verdict.
Considering independents also polled at 75-25, they can be removed from the equation as they precisely mirror the total. Therefore, the numbers reveal that had the poll questioned an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, the split would have been 72-28 percent instead.
On its face, the difference may seem trivial, but it’s not: The 75-25 split means the actual Democrat/Republican ratio was more along the lines of 55-45 percent in the Democrats’ favor.
Being that a 55-45 election win is generally considered a landslide — for instance, only two presidents have accomplished that in the last 55 years — a 10 percent gap by party affiliation among poll respondents is a big deal.
A poll with an 80-20 or 70-30 percentage split in Democrats’ favor would be so obviously lopsided that it would lose all credibility. But 55-45 is significant enough to achieve certain results, yet subtle enough to remain under the radar.
Polls matter indeed. Not necessarily for reflecting the opinions of the people, but, instead, for furthering the agendas of the pollsters and of those who report the results.
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