A tale of two surveys

Two recent statewide surveys took Californians’ pulse on issues about the state’s environment. And while, at first blush, the two seem to indicate very different results, they actually provide a vivid illustration about the art of political polling, and how differently constructed surveys can yield very different results.

The first result is from the new Capitol Weekly/Probolsky Research poll. In its survey of 750 voters, the poll found that 53 percent of California voters support “relaxing environmental rules and regulations for infrastructure in California in order to take full advantage of federal stimulus funds.”

The second survey, conducted by a bipartisan research team that includes the firms of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Public Opinion Strategies, showed strong support for the environment.

In that survey, respondents were asked to chose between two statements, and indentify the one that most closely represented their views.

An overwhelming majority, 63 percent of those who responded, said they agreed with the statement that “the budget and environmental laws are totally separate issues, and should be dealt with separately. Weakening environmental protections will not close the budet deficit.”

Only 27 percent of respondents chose the other statement: “We will never be able to eliminate the budget deficit unless we relax environmental regulations to let California employers create more jobs and get our economy going.”

But the results are not necessarily contradictory says pollster John Zogby, President and CEO of the research firm Zogby International.

“They really are asking different things. The federal stimulus doesn’t appear in the second question,” says Zogby. “There are a lot of different variables in those two questions. You’ve got jobs, the environment, the budget deficit, and you’ve got the federal stimulus package. And even though technically, it’s about the environment vs. jobs, different variables get brought into each question or statement.”

Zogby said he was not surprised to learn the two surveys yielded very different results, but he was hesitant to draw any conclusions from either result.

“I don’t think they’re badly worded,” Zogby said. “But if I want to be able to draw fuller conculsuions, I’d offer more options, and have people rank a bunch of different options,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Adam Probolsky, who conducted the survey for the Capitol Weekly/Probolsky poll. “Broadly, we are talking about jobs, and they are talking about the environment,” Probolsky said, comparing the two surveys. “We were hyper specific about this being an op to take advantage of the federal stimulus, and that’s not part of their question.”

Probolsky said the survey he conducted “was just a snapshot in time, asking voters, ‘is this something you’re willing to consider?’ And the answer was, “Yes.”

Zogby said the difference in the two surveys gets to the heart of the art that goes into political polling. pollsters are really trying to determine a set of values from their respondents. “it’s best to relate the positions to values that people might have, and which are dominant. So, in this instance, you have multiple variables and multiple values in there.”

And, he says, when it comes time to make difficult decisions, voters are asked to decide and prioritize between conflicting values.
“A majority will say that destroying the fetus is manslaughter,” Zogby says, “But a similar majority will tell me a woman has a right to choose.”

The Fairbank Maslin Maulin/POS poll was conducted by David Metz. Metz said the poll  “was developed in colaboration with a group of conservation organizations who were interested in finding out voters’ views on the proposals” currently floating around Sacramento.
Metz said the findings of his survey show “the public sees this as two separate issues. The budget’s import, should be resolved, but there’s no reason why environmental protetions should be part of that.

Metz said his findings are consistent with past attitudes Californians have toward environmental protection. “The most striking thing has been the lack of change in attitudes over the last decade or so,” he said.  “Voters are resisting this idea that we should choose. The economy has done nothing to make them think the economy and protecting the enviroment is in opposition.

“The deficit and the economy are serious concerns for voters. They just don’t think they have to pick and choose,” he said.
Zogby says while that appears to be the case, he warned against drawing too many conculsions from either survey.

“One of the dangerous things about misusing polling is it can really foster hyper-partisanship,” Zogby said.  “One question can be asked legitimately about values, but serve the purposes of the Repubican side, and another can serve the purposes of the Democratic side.”

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