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Friday, February 25, 2011

Surveys: You get what you ask for?

OK, I give in. I'm writing about the Wisconsin budget repair battle. I came across an interesting poll result that's too good to pass up.

Poll: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Winning Labor, Budget Fight - Peter Roff (

Dick Morris, former Clinton pollster, released his finding on public opinion in Wisconsin. Read the article and decide for yourself if the headline is fair. But pay special attention to the last two paragraphs.

When people are asked if collective bargaining for teachers should be restricted to benefits and wages (as the bill would do), 54% say "no" and are opposed to that part of the bill. However, if you re-state the question and say that the collective bargaining limit "gives schools more flexibility, makes it easier to get rid of bad teachers and retain good ones..." then the poll results flip and 58% say "yes" to that part of the bill.

I applaud Morris' poll for asking the question both ways because it's a great example of how easy it is to slant poll results. Regardless of the issue, if your survey frames a "yes" with negative outcomes you'll get fewer "yes" answers. Frame it with positive outcomes and you'll get more "yes" answers.

Well duh! That should obvious. Every pollster should avoid loading their questions with positive or negative terms.

Now go read some surveys on hot-button issues. Whether intended or not, you'll find a lot a loaded questions because it can be hard to write a neutral question. Sometimes the best option is to ask the question a couple of different ways, like Morris did, to see how the outcomes change.


  1. In high school, I watched a video related to this topic, it was about the U.S. census and how not only do questions have to be phrased completely neutral, but they also have to be asked completely neutral. The example they gave was the question "How many alcoholic drinks do you have on an average day?" with the answer being "Five" and the inappropriate response was "FIVE DRINKS?!" It seems obvious, that the participant would then change their mind. When dealing with something as consuming as the census, the government spends incredible time and money in training just to attempt to get data that will hopefully be correct.

    As far as the Walker Budget Battle goes, I've seen countless polls and numbers all saying different things. Either side is completely able to get whatever data they wish and just about everyone seems to have a "latest" poll to back up what they have to say.

  2. This shows us that as a public we can't believe everything that the media presents us with. Pollsters can edit surveys so that they display the information that they want to present to the public by asking questions certain ways. Thus, it is best to check for credibility before we fall into believing one of these media traps.

  3. Personally, I have never really liked polls. I feel like a lot of times, the poll is biased either negatively or positively. Which then makes the poll unreliable and it usually affects my view of future polls. I'm not saying that all polls are unreliable, just a feel that I have encountered. In regards to this poll, I feel that it was a good choice for Morris to ask a question in a couple of different ways. That way if one person didn't really understand the question the first time, they are better able to answer it the second time around.