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Stop, Drop and Poll

Here is how the Associated Press summarizes the new immigration law that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law on Friday:

_ Makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally by specifically requiring immigrants to have proof of their immigration status. Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Repeat offenses would be a felony.
_ Requires police officers to “make a reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of a person if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is an illegal immigrant. Race, color or national origin may not be the only things considered in implementation. Exceptions can be made if the attempt would hinder an investigation.
_ Allow lawsuits against local or state government agencies that have policies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws. Would impose daily civil fines of $1,000-$5,000. There is pending follow-up legislation to halve the minimum to $500.
_ Targets hiring of illegal immigrants as day laborers by prohibiting people from stopping a vehicle on a road to offer employment and by prohibiting a person from getting into a stopped vehicle on a street to be hired for work if it impedes traffic.

And here is how Rasmussen polled on the question:

Do you favor or oppose legislation that authorizes local police to stop and verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant?

Granted, there are some ambiguities about what the law actually does. And coming up with the appropriate poll wording for complex questions like these is never easy.

But Rasmussen’s portrayal of the law is very gentle. There’s no mention of the provisions that liberals and civil libertarians find most odious: that the law would charge legal immigrants with trespassing for failure to carry documentation papers (although — note — this is already required under federal law); that it would give law enforcement officers new powers of detention (rather than mere “verification”); that it would allow officers, without a warrant, to arrest people who they suspected might be guilty of offenses that could lead to deportation, and that it would prohibit certain types of work-for-hire involving moving vehicles.

The Rasmussen poll says that 60 percent of Americans (and 70 percent of Arizonans) favor the new law, but how would those numbers change if people were read a longer or more complete description of the measure? Since there’s been no other polling on the subject, we have no idea. It wouldn’t shock me if the law indeed proved to be popular, especially in Arizona, if a fuller description were read. (Liberals, who uniformly seem to think that the law will be unpopular with certain key demographic groups, are a bit too sanguine about this). But this poll is so simplistic as to provide very little informational value.

To their credit, Rasmussen later asked people whether they were concerned that “efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants will also end up violating the civil rights of some U.S. citizens”; 58 percent said they were in fact somewhat or very concerned. But that finding did not get their lede, nor was that concern expressed relative to Arizona’s law itself.

And in general, this poll seems to be emblematic of a commercial polling industry that gravitates toward surveys that are about a mile wide and an inch deep. That approach might be perfectly fine for horse-race (election) polling, where many of the “non-traditional” pollsters (including Rasmussen) do just fine. Polling on policy issues, however — particularly policy issues like a new state law on which the public is liable to have limited familiarity — ought to inspire more thought and more finesse.

EDIT: One of the commenters writes:

“That seems a pretty fair representation of the law if you are going to summarize it in one sentence.”

That could be the case, although I’d probably use the verb ‘detain’ somewhere in there. But the whole point — which undoubtedly I haven’t made clearly enough — is that this is an artificial constraint. Some issues, particularly a law like this one that has a number of relatively unrelated provisions and with which the vast majority of the country is unfamilar, aren’t really done justice by a question battery that consists of one 25-word sentence. Provide, god forbid, a multi-sentence description when it’s appropriate. Test multiple question wordings. Get at the issue from a number of different directions.

Granted, the IVR (robocall) pollsters probably have to be more economical about their wording, because people are simply going to have less patience when they’re talking to a recording. But if you can’t provide for a reasonably neutral and complete exposition of an issue — whether through one question or through several — there’s nothing saying you have to poll on the subject at all.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.