Poll position: As Schwarzenegger fights to pass initiatives, his campaign team attacks pollsters

As labor unions and the governor’s campaign team square off in a
multimillion-dollar ballot box fight, another side skirmish has erupted
between Team Schwarzenegger and public opinion pollsters. The governor’s
team has attacked California’s major pollsters–the Field Poll and the Pubic
Policy Institute of California―by saying their methodology is flawed, their
polling questions skewed and their survey results over-hyped.

Those are the charges usually reserved for partisan pollsters_and the
governor’s private polls have come under their share of criticism from his
political opponents. But the Schwarzenegger team’s criticism of the two
major polls underscores how sensitive they are to framing the special
election debate in the press, as Schwarzenegger’s paid media campaign
ratchets up.

Pollsters have countered by pointing to their track record, and contend that
the methodology they use is time-tested and accurate. And while they concede
that public opinion may shift in these final four weeks of the special
election campaign, they defend their surveys, released last month, that show
at least three of the governor’s four initiatives trailing among likely
California voters.

The most recent polls from both the campaign and non-partisan pollsters have
showed widely divergent results. The last McLaughlin poll shows the
governor’s initiatives passing. Even Prop. 76, considered to be the
least-popular of the governor’s four initiatives, received a 66 percent Yes
vote according to the last McLaughlin poll.

That varies wildly from both Field and PPIC, which both showed Proposition
76 trailing badly. Field has the failing overwhelmingly, 65-19. PPIC showed
similar numbers, with Prop. 76 failing 63-26.

Pollsters on both sides of this debate agree that survey results can be
skewed depending on how questions are framed, and the sample size used in a
poll. But the governor’s team has gone on the attack, criticizing the
methodology of both Field and PPIC.

In an Aug. 25 memo, Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris said the PPIC poll
“is a very useful document if you are interested in what people who are not
ever registered to vote thought about Gov. Schwarzenegger.” The Aug. 25 PPIC
poll said it surveyed 2,004 “California adult residents,” but said they were
not asked whether they were likely voters or registered to vote.

Schwarzenegger pollster John McLaughlin criticized the Field Poll’s sampling
methods. For Field’s Sept. 5 poll, 615 adults were contacted randomly. Of
those, 426 of those contacted were registered voters, and 314 of those
voters were deemed likely voters by the pollsters.

“That’s way too small,” said McLaughlin. “It’s a lot cheaper to use a
smaller sample of likely voters, but it’s not nearly as accurate, and not as

McLaughlin also criticized Field for the wording of their questions. “The
results that we got were dramatically different because we were far more
neutral and far more objective.” (See sidebar for a comparison of Field and
McLaughlin’s wording

But that assessment is a matter of much debate. For example, in his own
questioning on Prop. 76, McLaughlin makes no mention of new powers the
governor would be given if the initiative passes. The official summary
mentions the governor would have new power to cut “appropriations of the
governor’s choosing.” McLaughlin’s question also mentions that Prop. 76
would keep the governor from raising taxes, a popular argument that is
nowhere in the title or summary.

On their questioning on Prop. 76, the Field Poll says the spending cuts
“could apply to schools and shift costs to other local governments.” While
that may be part of the No campaign, the title and summary says only that
the governor could cut “employee compensation/state contracts.”

Field and McLaughlin also came back with divergent results on Prop. 77, the
redistricting initiative. Field makes no mention of the fact that voters
will be given a chance to approve the new districts, which proponents say is
an immensely popular provision.

In McLaughlin’s question, he tells respondents that judges draw districts
“instead of politicians,” while Field points out the judges would be
“selected by legislative leaders.” The title and summary does point out that
the judges would be “selected by legislative leaders,” but also mentions
public comment, public hearings and mentions the voters role in approving
the plan.

Could these subtle differences really lead to such wildly divergent results?
Or is the governor’s campaign team simply spinning as his measures head to
likely defeat?

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo defends Field’s methodology, and says
they stuck closely to the official initiative title and summary that will
appear on the November ballot. He says the proof of their effectiveness is
in Field’s track record. “This is way the Field Poll has always asked the
questions,” he says. “We’ve measured 53 propositions. In 49 of the 53 races,
the final poll conformed with the final result.”

DiCamillo did say that the interpretations of the polls can sometimes lead
to the wrong impression. For example, he said the best measure of how a
measure will fare is the final poll before the election. Polls offer a
snapshot in time, and attitudes on measures can, and do, change. DiCamillo
said the last Field Poll was conducted before the governor’s paid media
campaign was launched, and the effectiveness of that campaign will be
measured in the organization’s upcoming poll, which will be released
sometime before Election Day.

“We always caution people that this is opinion at one moment in time,” he
says. “When the governor’s side says this result doesn’t capture the ads
that haven’t run yet, and all the campaigning is going to happen late,
they’re right. We will do another [survey], hopefully after their campaign
ads have run.”

McLaughlin maintains that some of the “atmospherics” for the governor remain
positive. He points to polls that show the governor’s approval rating much
higher than the dismal numbers in recent surveys by Field, PPIC and San Jose
State University.

“There is an awareness now that the governor is trying to do some good
things and that he has some stiff opposition,” McLaughlin says. “People on
our side are saying ‘Oh, this makes sense now.’

DiCamillo says a dramatic turnaround, especially for Prop. 76, is unlikely
because there is so much paid advertising on both sides. “The swing can
happen when it’s a one-sided ad push at the end_―when everything up to that
point has been neutral or docile, and then all of a sudden there’s a big
splash on one side.”

That is exactly what happened last year when Schwarzenegger united with all
four living former governors to oppose Proposition 66, which would have
changed the state’s three-strikes sentencing laws. The measure was ahead
overwhelmingly just two weeks before election day, and was turned on its
head by the late-bipartisan push, which drove the measure to defeat.

But turnarounds like Prop. 66 are uncommon. DiCamillo says the governor has
another strike against him, trying to convince voters to actively vote for
his measures, rather than voting against something.

“No is the default position for a voter,” he says. “Getting people from an
initial yes to a no position that says lets not change this, I think that’s
an easier move for a voter.”

DiCamillo says the next survey will say a lot about how effective the
governor’s and the unions’ campaigns have been. If there is movement either
to the “yes” side, or even from no to undecided, that could mean good news
for the governor on Election Day.

“When the undecid
ed goes up, that should raise a flag in your head. It means
people are getting cross pressures. When a re-evaluation of an initiative is
taking place, usually, it’s preceded by the number of undecideds going up.”

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