Polling these days is often a form a spin. Pollsters artfully phrase and sequence questions to elicit the answers the sponsor is paying for. The sponsor then uses the answers to influence the voter attitudes he pretends the poll merely reflects. The sponsor bets that more voters will support his agenda if they believe (however mistakenly) that most of their neighbors do too. It’s the old self-fulfilling prophesy trick.
Especially during the silly season, some organizations spend lots of cash trying to manufacture the appearance that their preferred candidate has already won. Their operative premise is that you can fool most of the people most of the time — or at least hoodwink enough people in swing (purple) states to make a difference at the ballot box.
What prompts this reflection is an article in today’s Greenwire about an opinion survey of swing state voters conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The poll allegedly finds that voters in eight swing states prefer by 57% to 32% a presidential candidate who supports EPA regulation of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. That candidate, of course, is Barack Obama.
As discussed in previous posts on voter surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling, the trick is to frame the question so that most respondents give the sponsor’s preferred answer. Here’s the question as described in Greenwire:
Without specifying Obama’s or Romney’s position, the telephone survey asked voters: “One candidate for president supports EPA standards to reduce toxic mercury pollution from power plants; the other candidate says these limits would be bad for business and EPA should not reduce mercury pollution. Would you be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports EPA standards to reduce toxic mercury pollution or one who opposes them?”
In essence, do you want more or less “toxic mercury pollution” in the environment? Unless you happen to be a “toxic mercury polluter,” you are more likely to respond that you are “more likely” to vote for the guy who wants to reduce “toxic mercury pollution.” This framing abstracts from all the scientific, technical, and economic information that a presidential candidate would need to make a rational choice in the public interest.
By the EPA’s own reckoning, the costs of the mercury reductions required by the agency’s Utility MACT Rule exceed the quantifiable health benefits by a ratio of 1,600 to one or even 19,200 to one. And in the 22 years since Congress tasked the EPA to study the health risks of mercury, the agency has not identified a single child whose learning or other disabilities can be traced to power-plant mercury emissions.
Include those facts in the question along with the statement that the EPA policy would be “bad for business,” and the results would undoubtedly be very different from those NRDC is touting to the media.