Why polling is helpful — even if you dislike the results

LaVarr Webb

As readers know, at UtahPolicy.com we conduct regular survey research with Y2Analytics on public policy topics, political races and politician popularity.

Sometimes we hear from smart people who don’t like the results of our polling. They suggest that if we had asked the question a little differently, we would have gotten different results more to their liking.

And they’re right. Questions can be asked to get any response desired. But we try not to skew our questions. We work hard to frame questions to avoid bias and reflect current understanding of the issue.

Personally, I haven’t liked the responses on a number of key issues we’ve researched. For example, I support the Legislature’s tax reform. But a majority of voters disagree with me. I believe the constitutional earmark for education should be repealed. But most voters want to keep the earmark. I don’t support the Equal Rights Amendment. But two-thirds of Utahns support it.

We easily could have asked questions on those issues that would elicit the results I like. But that wouldn’t be smart. If I’m a wise practitioner of public policy, I want to understand current public opinion so I know where things stand and what needs to be done to change voter sentiment.

For example, it’s obvious that most Utah voters aren’t very familiar with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Most are too young to remember the vigorous debate about the pros and cons back in the 1970s. So, if someone asks today, “Do you support the Equal Rights Amendment,” what’s not to like? Who could be opposed to equal rights?

It’s important for opponents of the ERA to understand existing sentiments and have a clear-eyed assessment of the big job ahead if public opinion is to be reversed.

Likewise, it’s important for supporters of tax reform to understand how the public feels without using leading questions to skew the results. If I was on the team promoting tax reform, I’d want those baseline results.

Certainly, campaigns may want to use survey research to test messages, pro and con. That can be very valuable. But the results of those questions don’t reflect general public opinion, and it’s important to start any public policy campaign with an understanding of where voters are right now.

That’s why accurate survey research is important – even if I don’t like the results.