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Sometimes The Question Is Secondary

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

Which issues matter to the American people?

In just about every CBS News Poll since January, 2005, the war in Iraq has been the country's dominant problem. That's measured by asking the public to say exactly what's on their minds, without prompting, using this question: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?"

This kind of "open-ended" question differs from many poll questions, in which people are given a set of choices. It's sometimes harder to interpret and there is a lot of diversity in the answers people give. Some people give extremely idiosyncratic answers that can be hard to categorize. But most of the time, several key themes recur. Since last December, there has been only one key theme: No issue except the war is volunteered by as many as 10 percent of the public. In the last CBS News/New York Times Poll, 31 percent named the war.

The first time a version of this question was asked was back in 1942, when the Gallup Poll put the question in the context of World War II: "Aside from winning the war, what do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?"

The top four mentioned then were the economic situation, the scarcity of labor, the food shortage and the need to make a lasting peace. Two years after the war ended, the question assumed the shape we know today. What were the top answers in 1947? High prices, foreign policy and preventing war.

War and peace and economic problems are almost always on people's minds. When there is no foreign worry and the economy is in good shape, issues like crime and even morality rise to the top. That happened in the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, but it hasn't been the case for years.

What the "most important problem" answers tell us are the subjects that are of most concern to Americans — and where the subjects matter, opinions are clear and well-held.

It's easy to measure where the public stands on the war in Iraq these days — it almost doesn't matter what you ask. Here are two examples from polls conducted in May. Between May 18 and May 23, CBS News and the New York Times asked: "Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the U.S. have stayed out?"

Sixty-one percent said the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq.

Earlier in the month, a USA Today/Gallup Poll asked: In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not? Just about the same percentage — 58 percent — said the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to Iraq.

Even though one question asked basically if the U.S. did the right thing and the other asked if the U.S. did the wrong thing, Americans knew what they wanted to say and gave fundamentally similar answers. The way the question was asked mattered little to the results.

Even some topics that don't make the top of the most important problem list can galvanize opinion and provide poll results that are consistent no matter how a question is phrased. I can think of at least three. One was long ago, in 1980, when the public overwhelmingly agreed with then-President Jimmy Carter that the U.S. should not participate in the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the Soviet Union's military invasion of Afghanistan. But two are much more recent.

In 2005, in every poll question, majorities of Americans supported the decision to remove the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, who had been in what doctors called a "persistent vegetative state" since 1990. They continued to support it — and by similar margins — a year after the fact. There is no question that many Americans used the Schiavo case as a way of expressing their own desire whether or not to be kept alive in similar circumstances.

The following year, in surveys conducted by six different organizations (CBS News. Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, ABC News/Washington Post, Pew, and the Republican Winston Group), using slightly different wordings, between 66 percent and 73 percent of Americans opposed the selling of operations of U.S. ports to a Dubai-owned company. It mattered little whether Americans were told that there were six ports involved, that ports were at that time being run by a British company, or that security was being provided by the United States. Even when those opposed were reminded specifically that the U.S. Coast Guard would handle security and that other ports were managed by foreign companies, nearly all those originally opposed continued to oppose the arrangement.

Americans give real opinions when they are asked about things that matter to them. Measuring opinion on those issues is easy. It's when we deal with some other topics where opinions can be less clear — like polling about elections that are months away — that finding the right answers can be hard.

By Kathy Frankovic

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