Problems in Assessing the Political Impact of Enron

Frank Newport
Editor in Chief, The Gallup Poll

PRINCETON, NJ -- It is certainly too early to tell what the ultimate impact of the Enron controversy will be on the public’s opinion of President George W. Bush and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, but initial poll results addressing the issue are already coming in. The results are mixed, if not contradictory. Indeed, the attempt to answer questions surrounding Enron illuminates once again the complexities and challenges involved in both measuring and interpreting public opinion polling data.

We can begin with the New York Times’ front-page headline from Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002: "Poll Finds Enron’s Taint Clings More to G.O.P. Than Democrats." The Times story goes on to say: "Americans perceive Republicans as far more entangled in the Enron debacle than Democrats."

At the same time, we can look at the headline in USA Today from Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002: "Bush Gets Benefit of Doubt From Public in Latest Poll." The USA Today story goes on to conclude: "Although uneasy about the collapse of the energy giant, Americans are judging Bush less harshly than they are Democrats in Congress."

The New York Times article is based on data from a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted Jan. 21-24, 2002. Although the poll covered a variety of topics, there was only one question out of the more than 70 included in the questionnaire that looked specifically at differences between Republicans and Democrats relating to Enron:

"From what you know so far, do you think executives of the Enron Corporation had closer ties to members of the Republican Party or closer ties to members of the Democratic Party?"

The responses were as follows:

Republican Party

45%

Democratic Party

10

Both equally (vol.)

10

Don’t know

35

   

(vol.) Volunteered response

 

These responses leave little doubt that Americans with an opinion on the topic are more likely to say "Republican" than "Democrat" in response to this question.

But most survey researchers have learned over the years that one has to be very careful in extrapolating conclusions from individual survey questions. In particular, we have learned that respondents to phone surveys listen very carefully to the words and cues contained within questions and respond to what they perceive to be the intent of the question -- and the analyst must be careful about assuming that the data suggest more than that.

Along these lines, it is important to note that the New York Times/CBS News poll wording specifically uses the words "closer ties" in asking about Republican and Democratic Party relationships to Enron. The question has no direct negative implication -- it does not use the words "tainted" or "entangled" or "hurt" or "negatively impacted." It simply measures perceptions of past associations. And it may not come as a surprise that many Americans associate Enron more with the Republicans than with the Democrats. There was the Texas connection between George W. Bush and Enron, the fact that former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was a close friend of Bush’s, the association that many Bush administration officials have had with the energy business over the years, and so forth.

But does the perception that the Republicans have closer ties than the Democrats to Enron lead directly to the conclusion that the Republicans, therefore, are more "tainted" or "entangled" by Enron than are the Democrats in the mind of the public?

The New York Times headline writers and the authors of the article were willing to make this conceptual leap. They apparently assumed that Enron’s obviously negative positioning implies that any association with Enron should be interpreted negatively. Although there are other data in the New York Times/CBS News poll that measure perceptions of Enron and the Bush administration, there are no other questions that speak directly to the issue of distinguishing between the two political parties on the issue. The newspaper was basing these conclusions on the responses to this one question.

This leap between "closer ties" and "tainted" may or may not turn out to be a plausible one in the future, but without further data, it seems tenuous as of today. Do Americans think that the fact that Enron was tied to Bush and other Republicans means that Bush and the Republicans actually did something wrong? Is the public going to hold the Republicans more responsible than the Democrats, as the Times story implies? The one question asked in the New York Times/CBS News poll does not allow us to answer these questions.

There are additional data available to help answer these questions. The USA Today story quoted above was based on a weekend CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Jan. 25-27, 2002. These polling data lead to distinctly different conclusions.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked about the political impact of the Enron scandal in a different way. We didn’t ask the type of forced-choice question used by the New York Times/CBS News poll, but rather asked respondents separately about the members of the Bush administration and the Democrats. (Note that these questions ask about the Bush administration rather than "Republicans.")

Here is how the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll did it:

 

Which of the following statements best describes your view of members of the Bush administration’s involvement with the Enron Corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

BASED ON -- 493 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Jan 25-27

15%

32

28

25

         

2002 Jan 11-14

10%

36

28

26



Which of the following statements best describes your view of the Democrats in Congress involvement with the Enron Corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

BASED ON -- 518 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Jan 25-27

16%

35

18

31



The first thing to notice here is the very small difference between negative perceptions of the Bush administration’s involvement and that of the Democrats in Congress. If we look just at the percentage of Americans saying that these two groups did something illegal, the relevant numbers are 15% and 16%, respectively. If we combine "illegal" and "unethical but not illegal" we find 47% for members of the Bush administration and 51% for the Democrats in Congress.

Notice here that this question does not ask about "closer ties" or "association" but asks directly about perceptions of wrongdoing in relationship to Enron. The key point: Americans at this moment are not predisposed to assume more negative actions on the part of the Bush administration than on the part of the Democrats in Congress. These responses were the basis for the conclusions in the USA Today headline and article.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll went further and asked about the likelihood that either members of the Bush administration or the Democrats in Congress would be influenced by Enron money if it had been given to them.

As you may know, Enron executives have made major donations to George W. Bush’s presidential election campaign. Do you think Enron executives felt they would -- or would not -- get special treatment on policy issues in return for making these contributions?

BASED ON -- 493 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A; ±4 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Would

Would not

No opinion

       

2002 Jan 25-27

77%

15

8



Do you think Bush felt he would -- or would not -- owe Enron executives any special treatment on policy issues by accepting these contributions?

BASED ON -- 493 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Would

Would not

No opinion

       

2002 Jan 25-27

29%

59

12



As you may know, Enron executives have made major donations to election campaigns for some Democrats in Congress. Do you think Enron executives felt they would -- or would not -- get special treatment on policy issues in return for making these contributions?

BASED ON -- 518 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B; ±4 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Would

Would not

No opinion

       

2002 Jan 25-27

83%

8

9



Do you think these Democrats in Congress felt they would -- or would not -- owe Enron executives any special treatment on policy issues by accepting these contributions?

BASED ON -- 518 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Would

Would not

No opinion

       

2002 Jan 25-27

55%

33

12



Here we find that the public is actually slightly more likely to say that Enron executives felt they would get special treatment from Democrats as a result of the contributions than that they would get special treatment from contributions to the Bush administration -- by an 83% to 77% margin.

And, perhaps more importantly, the American public is considerably more likely to say that the Democrats in Congress would feel they "owe Enron executives" special treatment on policy issues by accepting these contributions than to say this about members of the Bush administration.

It is important to note, again, that these questions pit the Bush administration against the Democrats in Congress. We did not, in this sequence of questions, ask about Republicans in Congress versus Democrats in Congress. This may partially help explain the results. The president is enjoying record high job approval ratings at this time. He may be better positioned to resist being affected by Enron than are the more generic "Republicans" tested in the New York Times/CBS News poll.

Still, the implication of the New York Times article was that the Bush administration had been hurt more than the Democrats by Enron. The results from the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll challenge these conclusions.

More generally, this issue once again raises what is perhaps the most important concern in polling today -- the need to analyze and integrate a variety of questions and approaches to public opinion on an issue before reaching conclusions. The entire issue of how badly Bush, the Republicans or the Democrats have been hurt in the American public’s eyes as a result of their connection with Enron is an important one. But answering it appropriately requires a good deal of analysis and continuing integration of all possible ways of investigating the situation through survey questions.


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