Answers on Affirmative Action Depend on How You Pose the Question

Polling about affirmative action and racial issues is inherently difficult, and responses differ rather widely based on question wording.

As a result, both sides in the debate are able to promote poll numbers that suggest a majority of Americans agrees with them.

Using the phrases “special preferences” or “preferential treatment” in a question tends to reduce support for affirmative action. Americans want life to be fair: They generally don’t mind assisting groups that need help, but they don’t like the idea of that help coming at the expense of others. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey, for instance, found that when the question included the word “help,” 60 percent of Americans favored affirmative action; in a question that used the word “preferences,” support fell by 14 percentage points.

Specifying groups that would benefit from affirmative action also tends to reduce support for the policies. When specific groups — such as women, African-Americans or gays and lesbians — were named, support for the practice of affirmative action fell significantly, for all groups but one, as a 2009 Quinnipiac University survey found. The only exception was people with handicaps. In the question that mentioned them, support for affirmative action was higher than for any other groups, and higher than on a broader question that didn’t name any group.


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