Monday, April 19, 2010

Conflicting Polls on the Teachers' Union? Not Really.

A trio of polls were released last week on Governor Chris Christie’s budget, particularly focusing on school aid cuts and state unions. According to at least one report, these polls were “seemingly at odds” with one another (also here). But if you look at what the three polls actually asked, they really tell separate pieces of a cohesive – but nuanced – story.

The Eagleton Poll (and here) found 57% of New Jerseyans feel that school aid should not be cut and 72% are opposed to “making it easier” to lay off teachers to solve local budget problems.

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll found 68% of the public see the cuts as being unfair to some groups (with teachers being among the top “victims”) and Governor Christie is seen as the more negative party in the NJEA dust-up, and ultimately more responsible for the impending teacher layoffs.

The Rasmussen Poll found 65% of likely voters favor having school employees (including teachers, administrators and other workers) take a one year wage freeze to help make up for the deficit in state funding.

I really don’t find anything too contradictory in those results. Public opinion is rarely black and white (as national polling about the health reform debate dramatically illustrates). The real difference in these three polls is that each chose to cover a different facet of the issue.

Both the Eagleton and Monmouth polls asked residents about their opinion of the governor’s proposed budget and how it will affect them personally.

Eagleton also asked quite a few questions about what areas of the budget should or should not be cut and what, if any, tax increases the public is willing to accept in order to avoid those cuts (none, apparently).

Monmouth’s survey included questions on impressions of Christie’s budget in comparison to Jon Corzine’s first budget (trends are a wonderful tool for providing context) and a focus on communication with the general public, including the NJEA battle and reaction to key terms used to describe the budget (e.g. “tough” and “fair”).

Rasmussen’s poll asked four questions, mainly focused on state worker concessions to deal with the budget crisis.

In terms of election polling, Rasmussen has a very good track record and, by my reckoning, had the most accurate final pre-election poll in last year’s gubernatorial race. [And admittedly, Monmouth, along with Zogby, YouGov, and Democracy Corp, came up with the wrong end of the stick in the final days of that campaign. Eagleton did not issue a final election poll.]

But election polling and policy polling are as different as meteorology and climatology. Both start off from the same theoretical premise, but election polling rises and falls on a pollster’s ability to selectively sample and predict the behavior of a subset of the total population. The heart of good policy polling is question wording. [That's why it’s really important to read the actual poll questions on controversial policy issues before reporting the results.]

Differences in question wording can be just a matter of perspective. Simply put, each pollster comes to the field from a different background, e.g. political scientist, policy or communication researcher, partisan strategist, and so on. These hats inform both the topics they choose to cover and how they word the questions.

The pollster’s agenda also informs what segments of the population are considered worth including in the measurement of public opinion on a policy issue. Do they survey the entire general public affected by the issue or just likely voters who can inflict electoral consequences? [Update: Coincidentally,'s Mark Blumenthal addresses this very issue in his National Journal column today!]

Regardless of the pollsters' varying agendas, these three polls taken together tell a much more complete story than any of the polls separately. You just have to do a little work to put the pieces together.

The notion that the public wants their taxes lowered but recoil from cutting valued services and programs is a phenomenon we’ve seen for years.

So why is it any more difficult to fathom that the public believes the state payroll is a drain on resources and wants the unions to make concessions, but at the same time feels that the governor’s “in your face” approach may not be the best way to go about it?

Another seeming contrast is the recent Public Mind poll that found New Jerseyans evenly divided – 35% favorable to 35% unfavorable – in their opinion of the NJEA and Rasmussen’s result that 66% of the public think the union is more interested in “protecting their members’ jobs” than in “the quality of education.”

Hmm, a union is seen as being more interested in helping their members than in helping their members’ employers. Unusual?

[Side note: Considering how many teachers will be laid off because the unions are unwilling to negotiate concessions, one has to wonder what these poll respondents were actually thinking when they said the union is protecting jobs. My guess is that the question simply taps the employee/employer dichotomy. ABC News pollster Gary Langer has a must-read post about the perils of taking question wording too literally.]

The bottom line is that there is nothing contradictory in these polls. Nothing in the Monmouth/Gannett poll contradicts Rasmussen's finding that most people see the state payroll as a burden on the budget and unionized workers should be willing to take a wage freeze. [In fact, much of our past polling supports that view.] By the same token, Rasmussen's poll does not contradict our finding that the public feels the school aid cut is unfair and the governor is more responsible for the negative tone of the debate.

As someone who has worked closely with media partners on providing public opinion data, I know that nuance in poll numbers – or indeed in any data driven reporting – is not the easiest thing to get across.

Here’s a friendly suggestion for my good friends in the fourth estate. If you are faced with seemingly conflicting polls – especially when a particular set of numbers is brought to your attention by a politician’s press secretary (!) – perhaps it would be worthwhile to contact an independent polling expert to provide context to what the different polls are saying.

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