In today’s New York Times Charles Blow cites a finding from a recent CNN/ORC poll where 47 percent of Republican respondents agreed that the House Select Committee on Benghazi was “using the investigation to gain political advantage.” At face value this is a rather surprising result.
Most questions that ask people to approve or disapprove of the actions of politicians generate partisan results. Democrats are more likely to approve of the performance of President Obama while Republicans generally disapprove. So, at first glance, for half of all Republicans to agree that the Republican-controlled Committee acted for political gain could seem unusually critical of the Committee’s actions. As it turns out there is a much larger group of Republicans who see the proceedings as politically motivated and are cheering the Committee on.
It turns out that the question Blow cites was asked of only half the sample. Another half were asked whether “Republicans have gone too far” in the way they have handled the hearings, or whether they have handled them “appropriately.” The left-hand table reports that 71 percent of Democrats said “Republicans” had “gone too far” while 20 percent believed “Republicans” had handled the hearings “appropriately.” For Republican respondents the reverse held true; only 16 percent of them say “Republicans have gone too far” while 74 percent say Republicans acted “appropriately.”
These figures do not sum to one hundred percent because of “don’t know” responses. Nine percent of Democrats (=100-(71+20) = 9) have no answer on the “gone too far” question as do ten percent of Republicans (= 100 – (16+74) = 10).
The question on the left constitutes a referendum on “Republicans” while the one on the right asks about the “House Select Committee” with no partisanship attached. When asked to judge the Republicans’ behavior, we see the usual pattern of partisan response. However when asked to judge whether the Committee conducted an “objective investigation” or one to “gain political advantage,” the difference between Republicans and Democrats is considerably smaller. Republicans split about equally between the two alternatives, with 47 percent choosing the “objective” response and 49 percent the “political” one. Democrats almost uniformly see a political motive behind the Committee’s actions. 85 percent of them choose the political answer while just 10 percent see the Committee as “objective.”
Since these sub-samples were randomly chosen from the overall pool of respondents, both represent equally valid samplings of public opinion. One thing we do not have are the answers of citizens when asked both questions because they are in separate half-samples. We can, however, run some experiments to see what proportion of Republicans think the Committee is conducting a political investigation and approve of it.
We start with the basics — half of Republicans believe the Committee’s actions are politically motivated, and three-quarters of them approve of the its conduct of the investigation. We can combine these two measures to estimate how many Republicans endorse the Committee’s following a political agenda.
This table uses the responses for Republicans from the first table. Republicans’ answers to whether the Committee was objective or political appear on the columns and how they judged the Committee’s actions along the rows. We know the percentage of Republicans who gave each of these answers, but we do not have data for the cells of the table because no one was asked both questions. We can generate a “baseline” estimate for these cells by assuming that there is no relationship between answers to one question and answers to the other. Under that assumption we get a most-likely estimate of the proportion of Republicans endorsing a politically-motivated Committee of about 36 percent. That figure is calculated by taking 49 percent, the proportion seeing the Committee as politically motivated, and applying it to the 74 percent of Republicans who thought the Committee’s actions were “appropriate.” Multiplying those figures together yields the estimated proportion of Republicans holding both opinions, 49% x 74% = 36.3%.
That figure represents our best guess since it makes no assumptions about how opinions on the two questions might be related. However we can also set upper and lower bounds for this value because it is constrained by the “marginals,” the row and column totals that each must sum to one hundred percent. The minimum, or “benign” estimate assumes every Republican who thinks the Committee has “gone too far” also believes the Committee is acting politically. That produces a table like this:
In this extreme case the 7.5 percent in the original “objective/gone too far” cell is added to the corresponding “political” cell on its right. Since the “political” column must still sum to 49 percent, the proportion of Republicans who think the Committee’s action appropriate must fall to compensate and reaches its minimum of just under 29 percent.
Likewise we can add the 7.8 percent in the original “gone too far/political” cell to the “objective” cell on its left. That more “aggressive” model assumes all Republicans who see the Committee acting politically also endorse its actions, and none think it has gone too far. That increases the estimate to its maximum of 44 percent.
All told then, between 29 and 44 percent of Republicans see the House Select Committee on Benghazi as acting politically and approve.
Charles Blow views the 49 percent of Republicans who believe the Committee is politically motivated as showing widespread “skepticism” about the Committee’s motives that extends even to Republicans. With three-quarters of Republican endorsing the Committee’s investigation, I see more cheering than skepticism in Republican ranks. The true skeptics, those who think the Committee has “gone too far,” make up just sixteen percent of Republicans. Twice as many Republicans or more endorse the Committee’s actions precisely because it has pursued a political agenda.
Surprisingly, independents prove even more likely to see the approve of a Committee with partisan motivations.. Three-quarters of independents think the Committee see a political motive, but a majority of them, 57 percent, also think the Committee has acted appropriately. Applying the baseline assumption of no-correlation as before, and multiplying those two figures together, indicates that nearly 43 percent of independents endorse a politically-motivated investigation, higher even than the Republican figure of 36 percent.
Elsewhere in the CNN/ORC poll we see that independents are vastly more unhappy with Hillary Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi affair than are Democrats. Twice as many independents report being “dissatisfied” than “satisfied,” 65 percent to 31 percent. Democrats hold the reverse set of opinions with 63 percent satisfied and 30 percent dissatisfied. The Republicans are the most extreme, of course, with 85 percent dissatisfied and only eleven percent satisfied. Those dissatisfied independents could play an important role in next fall’s general election.