Hey, someone’s been eating my constitutional rights!
After St. Paul announced last week that a man named Heffelfinger would review law enforcement during the Republican National Convention, a local TV station trumpeted what would seem to be Goldilocks’ view on the matter.
This weekend’s SurveyUSA/KSTP-TV poll reported that – in Three-Bears fashion – 60 percent of Minnesotans surveyed chose “Just About Right” as the best answer to this question: “How do you think law enforcement handled the arrests of hundreds of protesters during the Republican National Convention?”
“Just About Right?” Does that mean 60 percent of Minnesotans think that 45 is just about the right number of journalists to be arrested and detained? So 53 would have been too aggressive, 36 not quite aggressive enough? And 27 medics in cuffs is perfect — why, because it’s 3 X 3 X 3?
The other stances offered were “Too Aggressively” and “Not Aggressively Enough” — adherents of which might find they have more common ground with each other than with the blithe Just About Righties.
Never mind that SurveyUSA took the poll just as 9/11 memorials honoring fallen first responders filled the airwaves. Or that KSTP had already told viewers, in an unusual on-air editorial, that police had done a good job protecting the convention of the party the station’s owner gives prodigiously to. Or that, remarkably, the corollary question — Were Americans’ free speech rights protected too aggressively, not aggressively enough, or just about right? – is rarely posed by pollsters.
The question is: Who could look at what happened on the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis — from the first house preemptively raided to the last faceful of pepperspray — and say law enforcement got it “just about right?” Did Survey USA only poll the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis?
“Just About Right” appears with some regularity in public opinion research. SurveyUSA has used it for polls in other states, including in a recent Washington State poll that asked about the level of media scrutiny applied to Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. And it was used as recently as 2005 in an annual Sunshine Week survey regarding the amount of public access to government data and meetings.
It’s an attractive answer for people taking surveys: in a Washington Post/ABC poll from March, “Just About Right” walloped all comers on the question of whether McCain and Obama were too liberal, too conservative, or just about right. Gallup uses “Just About Right” when asking the same question (and found in July that slightly more people thought McCain too conservative than just about right).
In fact, “Just About Right” was one of the provided responses in the first nationwide public opinion poll, conducted by the Gallup organization in September, 1935: “Do you think expenditures by the government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or just about right?”
“Just about Right” is a standard middle-response category in the field of consumer research where it goes by the acronym JAR, as in “JAR-scale surveys.” Even there, researchers — call them JARheads — rely on JAR-scales much more as a way to measure sensory responses, such as the taste of a new food than as a method to suss out judgements about concepts such as food product names or marketing campaigns.
And maybe that’s the problem with the SurveyUSA question on RNC policing: it measures whether the level of police aggressiveness was to your taste, not whether it was wrong in concept or practice. Or maybe future polls of this sort need a fourth option: Just About Wrong.