Most-admired woman? Or best brand?

As a researcher, I do believe surveys are valuable, important tools for understanding public sentiment.

But polls have become one of the most abused items in today’s society, to the point that some outlets even ask clueless people about who they think perpetrated a crime. If there is a number available, we believe the statistic is sacrosanct.

It’s even more worrisome when credible names such as USA Today and Gallup tout the answer to an open-ended question as what Americans believe.

In a poll taken Dec. 11-13, questioners asked (among several other questions):

  • What woman living today do you admire most?
  • What man living today do you admire most?

And the winners:

  • Woman: Hillary Clinton (16%), Sarah Palin (15%), Oprah Winfrey (8%), Michelle Obama (7%)
  • Man: Barack Obama (30%), George W. Bush (4%), Nelson Mandela (3%), Glenn Beck (2%)

Wow! Clinton and Palin are neck and neck! And Glenn Beck is almost as admired as Nelson Mandela!

The problem with stories about the poll is that they focus on the results with little questioning about how people might approach this question. USA Today does acknowledge that “name recall” plays a role, but that phrase doesn’t come until the sixth paragraph, well after the lead proclaiming:

President Obama is the man Americans admired most in 2009, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin are virtually tied as the most-admired woman.

What would be helpful is to consider the fact that Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck are among the most-watched people on television. And the week the poll was taken, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were the top newsmakers among media outlets, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

I am sure many of the 1,025 people polled honestly admire the people they named. But think about the times you’ve been polled. How often do you just say what comes off the top of your head? And is it possible for someone to admire both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton?

You also have to consider the margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points. That means Clinton and Palin could be as low as 12%, and Oprah could be as high as 12%. I can see a new narrative forming: A virtual three-way tie for most-admired woman! Oprah should run for president!

The worrisome issue is that some pundits try to tease out scenarios from this seemingly simple question. The savvy Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times notes the margin of error and adds this troubling insight:

Are American voters dropping a hint here?

According to a new survey just released by USA Today and the Gallup Poll, the 62-year-old Clinton barely beat out the 45-year-old Palin as the most admired female — 16% to 15% in a poll of 1,025 adult Americans.

However, because the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, it’s statistically a P-C draw. The survey was …

… open-ended, meaning men and women respondents had to provide the names by themselves.

Not that public admiration necessarily translates to votes. But the results have to set off any political spectator’s eager imagination about a future presidential ballot match-up between the pair who, though politically polar opposites, are both outspoken, both often underestimated and both beloved by their respective bases. (Emphasis added)

Folks, it’s one poll. One question. One group of people. Let’s be careful before extrapolating it to the entire populace as what America believes.

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