The CPAC Straw Poll Did Some Push-Polling for Libertarians

by Patrick Brennan

It’s no secret that the results of the straw poll of attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference show them holding some increasingly libertarian policy positions. But on one of the key questions asked in the poll, about the National Security Agency’s surveillance work, those surveyed didn’t get an accurate description of the issue.

Attendees were asked the following: “Do you favor or oppose the National Security Agency’s (NSA) use of data collection such as phone-tapping and reading of emails to combat global terrorism?”

This isn’t an accurate or balanced way to describe the NSA is authorized to do with American citizens or of the controversial policies revealed by Edward Snowden’s revelations. That controversy is over the fact that the NSA collects large amounts of data about Americans’ Internet activity and cell-phone usage without having access to the content of the communications. Obviously the NSA does a great deal of phone-tapping and reading of emails, but it isn’t authorized to do so inside the United States or with the communications of American citizens (without very specific authorization involving a warrant, etc.).

The pollster who conducted the survey, Tony Fabrizio of Fabrizio Lee, was available to answer questions about the poll, and NRO asked him whether he thought the question gives an accurate impression of what the NSA does.

It was “an accurate description of what Americans are perceiving from the media,” he said. I asked him whether the impression they’re getting is factually accurate, given that a lot of people mistakenly believe the NSA’s cell-phone programs do include collecting the content of phone calls, and he repeated a similar explanation. The description of the NSA’s recently revealed work as “phone-tapping and reading of emails” is “what [Americans] are reading in the media,” he said.

Another reporter asked Fabrizio if that meant they’d “dumbed down the poll.” “Yeah,” he said.

The “dumbed-down” question, if you will, wasn’t necessarily factually inaccurate, since the NSA does tap phones and read e-mails — but the controversy Americans have been following of late does not involve the NSA being accused of doing so with Americans’ phones and e-mails. Tapping phones and reading e-mails isn’t what James Clapper lied to Congress about, and the briefly infamous “Amash amendment” when liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans attempted to take away the NSA’s power to do what Edward Snowden revealed it did — gather metadata — not alter its ability to tap phones abroad, seek warrants, etc.

It’s almost amusing to hear, after three days of hearing how conservatives and the facts are distorted and misrepresented by a mendacious mainstream media, CPAC’s pollster say that . . . we should repeat a misleading impression Americans have gotten from the media.

It’s not uncommon for polling questions to say things like “based on what you know about” a given issue, presumably from the media, when asking about it, but that’s not what this poll did: Rather than offering a brief and accurate description of the controversy (as Gallup has) or just letting people come up with their own impressions (as the NYT/CBS poll has), the straw poll reinforced one impression Fabrizio thinks most voters hold.

Another interesting note: The perception tends to be that conservatives and the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, are somewhat discomfited by the influx of libertarian-leaning college students, who have pushed either Rand or Ron Paul to victory in the poll’s question about preferred presidential candidates in four out of the last five years. The question undoubtedly garnered more disapproval of the NSA than a question that left out an incendiary line like “phone-tapping and reading of e-mails,”  The straw poll certainly wasn’t written to downplay that sentiment.

CPAC attendees certainly do seem to be leaning libertarian, and as Cardenas explained when discussing the poll, straw polls aren’t scientific but this survey gives an interesting impression of some of America’s most engaged conservative activists. The previous day, Senator Rand Paul got standing ovation after standing ovation for railing against the NSA’s monitoring of cell phones and the federal government’s authority to detain terrorism suspects who are American citizens.

And it’s not just the fact that basically half of CPAC attendees (and poll respondents) are college students that’s driving the results more libertarian. On both national security and marijuana policy, the poll shows the conservative activists attending the conference leaning more libertarian, whether they’re young or old. A plurality of every age group except for those over the age of 65, for instance, supports legalizing marijuana for medical use or for medical and recreational use, ACU president Al Cardenas pointed out.

They do lean somewhat libertarian on foreign policy and national security, too, just not nearly as starkly as the NSA question suggested. Asked which of the following statements “comes closest to your view regarding the United States’ role in the world,” a full 52 percent don’t like describing the U.S. as a guarantor of security for our allies in Europe in Asia, and expect those partners to do more: