Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The Perils of Partisan Polling

I’ve written before how important objective, credible public opinion polls are in Utah, and how sad it is that the state’s main media outlets – which used to poll regularly – are no longer doing so because of financial troubles.

A good example of the perils, and advantages, of polling and public policy was shown this past week.

UtahPolicy – which has started polling weekly with long-time Utah pollster Dan Jones & Associates – conducted a poll that, among other things, attempted to measure Utahns’ knowledge of, and support of, Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion proposal.

You can read the results of that poll here.

Meanwhile, The Sutherland Institute, a local conservative think tank, also released a poll it had commissioned on the same topic.

You can read the results of the Sutherland poll here.

In short, the polls found very different answers.

Which are citizens and policymakers supposed to believe?

Sutherland says Utahns don’t want any Medicaid expansion (a position the think-tank officials have already taken).

Jones found that most Utahns don’t know about or understand Herbert’s Healthy Utah proposal. But when Jones explained it to them, then most backed the governor’s proposal.

(Editor’s Note: Herbert had no say in the drafting of our questions, done by UtahPolicy editors and Jones, nor did the governor participate in the poll in any way.)

When there is no objective, qualified polling being done in a locale, then citizens and policymakers are tempted to fall back on “polling” done by special interest groups, or in the case of head-to-head political races, by the individual candidates and/or their supporters.

The two polls on the Healthy Utah proposal is a perfect example.

The Sutherland Institute has taken a stand on a public policy issue – Medicaid expansion.

And it’s poll results show that position is favored by most of those surveyed.

UtahPolicy and Jones have no position on Healthy Utah, and we believe our survey best reflects the real opinions of Utah voters.

Now, any officeholder will tell you he or she NEVER governs by polls; rather they make the best decision for their constituents.

But any officeholder also pays attention to good, accurate polls – even if he or she denies doing so.


Because only a nut cake officeholder would disregard the fairly and accurately measured opinions of their voters.

On really important issues, maybe the officeholder will not follow his constituents’ desires. But if the issue is important enough to voters, the officeholder could pay a political price at re-election time.

This does not mean that officeholders will do what constituents want.

For years reliable polling has shown that most Utahns would favor an increase in their personal state income taxes if they were assured the money would go to better education in public school classrooms.

But GOP lawmakers and governors have refused to adjust the state income tax – all of which by law must to go either public or higher education.

Likewise, good polling has shown Utahns favor an increase in revenue for state roads. This could take several forms, the easiest being an increase in the per-gallon state gasoline tax.

Again, lawmakers and the governor have refused to increase revenues to repair old roads and build new ones.

In fact, lawmakers and the governor borrowed heavily to reconstruct I-15 in Utah County, putting the state in debt for years.

Some legislators want to address both public education and road funding in the 2015 Legislature – which is an off-election year for state House and Senate members.

But Herbert faces re-election in 2016, and has warned he may not go along with any tax hikes.

UtahPolicy is currently the only news outlet that is doing regular polling. (Much thanks to Zions Bank’s sponsorship of our political newsletter for providing support that allows us to do this Jones polling.)

UtahPolicy was able to measure the Mia Love/Doug Owens 4th Congressional District race this summer after the Owens’ camp released its own poll showing he was relative close to Love – who was the perceived leader.

While the difference in the head-to-head was not great (Jones had the race a 12 point lead for Love, Owens’ own poll was slightly closer), citizens had a measurement in the Jones poll they could rely upon.

Candidates and others often complain that the media care too much about the horse race – who is ahead and by how much – than they should.

A better use of polling dollars would be examination of and measurement of candidates’ proposals and ideas, they argue.

That’s all well and good.

But with 30 years of reporting on Utah politics and working with Jones and polling, I can tell you the bigger impact is made by a head-to-head match-up, especially if it shows one candidate is gaining on the other as Election Day nears.

It’s human nature; we want to know who may win – whether it’s a BYU-Utah football game or a U.S. Senate race.

Still, good, accurate polling can show policymakers an acceptable path toward achieving a goal – a goal that will be supported by a majority of the governed.

Politicians may tell you they have their thumb on the pulse of their constituents – and polling doesn’t matter.

Oh yeah?

Let a reliable, accurate poll show that 75 percent of the people disagree with what they are trying to push through a legislative body and see the reaction.

And always beware of a candidates’ or special interest groups’ polling.

It does matter who is conducting the poll, how the poll is conducted and whether the guy writing the check already has taken a position on the issue or candidate the poll is measuring.