After Heavily Touting Online Poll, MSNBC's David Shuster Questions Survey on 'Lunatic Fringe' Conservatives

Over the last 24 hours, MSNBC's David Shuster has been heavily promoting a questionable online poll suggesting that significant chunks of Republicans think Barack Obama is the Antichrist, Hitleresque or wasn't born in America. On Wednesday, Shuster questioned the Harris survey, even as the network's graphic screamed, "Obama 'Hitler Poll' Questioned: Controversial Poll Suggests Hate Fueling Lunatic Fringe."

Shuster talked with Humphrey Taylor, the chairman of Harris Polling and provided some skepticism about the survey's validity. But, he didn't explain why MSNBC has been so heavily hyping it.

Additionally, Shuster still embraced the incendiary language of the poll. He trumpeted, "Still, a controversial new online interactive poll suggests that general hatred of President Obama on the right, which may be fueling the lunatic fringe is more widespread than previously thought."

While talking to Taylor, the host did challenge the poll's methodology:

DAVID SHUSTER: The way you phrased the question is getting slammed. And here is Gary Langer, the director for polling for ABC News. He writes, "'Some people have said' is a biasing introductory phrase. It imbues the subsequent statements with an air of credibility, particularly when you don't note that others say something else. The subsequent statements are classically unbalanced. There's no alternative proposition to consider."

However, during the segment, Shuster failed to raise another problem with the poll. Online surveys are problematic.

Writing in the National Journal on October 13, 2009, Mark Blumenthal explained:

The Internet, however, also poses two even bigger barriers to true random sampling. The first is that not all Americans are online, although the share that now use the Internet (79 percent according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project) nearly matches the number with landline phone service (80 percent according to the National Center for Health Statistics). So while coverage is still a problem for Internet surveys, it is a growing issue for landline-only telephone surveys as well.

The bigger problem is that pollsters lack a "sample frame" for the Internet. In other words, there is no comprehensive list of Internet users and no mechanism comparable to 10-digit telephone numbers that allows us to select online Americans at random. Even if such a mechanism were available, most e-mail providers ban unsolicited e-mail, and most of us routinely delete those messages from unknown addresses that manage to slip through our spam filters.

The question must be asked: If this poll is possibly flawed, why does MSNBC continue to tout it? Host Tamron Hall cited the survey again in the 12pm hour.

A transcript of the March 24 segment, which aired at 10:03am EDT, follows:

MSNBC GRAPHIC: They Think What?

SECOND MSNBC GRAPHIC: Obama "Hitler Poll Questioned": Controversial Poll Suggests Hate Fueling Lunatic Fringe

DAVID SHUSTER: Now to a deadly serious domestic issue that has long that's long concerned the U.S. Secret Service. When President Obama was first elected, and for much of last year, officials said they were getting four times as many threats as when Presidents Bush and Clinton were in office. Last month, the Secret Service said the numbers had leveled off and were about the same as previous presidents. Still, a controversial new online interactive poll suggests that general hatred of President Obama on the right, which may be fueling the lunatic fringe is more widespread than previously thought. Here is what the poll of self-identified Republicans found: 45 percent of Republicans say Obama is a domestic enemy. 42 percent say he's racist. 41 percent, anti-American, 22 percent believe President Obama wants the terrorists to win. 57 percent of Republicans incorrectly believe the President is Muslim. 45 percent side with the birthers, who say that he wasn't born in the United States. 38 percent of Republicans say Obama's doing many things Hitler did. And 24 percent of Republicans say Obama might be the Antichrist. Humphrey Taylor is the chairman of the Harris poll. And, Humphrey, I want to start with some of the criticism you're getting. The way you phrased the question is getting slammed. And here is Gary Langer, the director for polling for ABC News. He writes, "'Some people have said' is a biasing introductory phrase. It imbues the subsequent statements with an air of credibility, particularly when you don't note that others say something else. The subsequent statements are classically unbalanced. There's no alternative proposition to consider. A wealth of academic literature demonstrates that questions constructed in this fax, true, false, agree, disagree carry a heavy dose of what's known as acquiescence bias. They overstate agreement with whatever has been posited, often by a very substantial margin." That's some pretty heavy criticism. Your reaction?

HUMPHREY TAYLOR: Well, Gary's a smart fellow but this is a tried and true method of measuring public opinion. And we did not push people to give one answer or another. And the fact is people discriminated substantially with what is on the list, with very large number of people saying he's a socialist and relatively few people saying that he is the Antichrist or going down the list to Hitler. So, people were clearly able to pick and choose the things they did and did not agree with.

SHUSTER: Except that if it were a standard way, how come you seem to be the only pollster who's doing this? And secondly, you do use some highly charged words, some very suggestive words: Racist, Hitler, dictatorial powers.

TAYLOR: Yes, that's true. Because, we wanted to find how many believed these things. The reason we did this poll, was because a new book came out called Wingnuts by John Avlon, in which he talked to a lot of people who hold these beliefs. I was flabbergasted, frankly, when I saw the book and said let's find how many people actually agree with the positions. So, that's why we did the poll. I'm glad to say we did it before anybody else thought of doing it.

SHUSTER: Well, it is some interesting numbers and a controversial poll. But, in any case, we appreciate you coming on this morning. Thank you.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org