Sunday, May 23, 2010

Streetcar Poll Raises Questions (Mainly About the Enquirer)

Today's Enquirer releases poll results purporting to measure City residents' views on the streetcar. The article raises two questions: one about the Enquirer, and one about City voters. (Note: I am assuming, for the purposes of this post, that the instrument is valid and there were no sampling errors.)

1. Why is this article so intentionally misleading? The article, which sat on the front page of the online Enquirer most of today, begins:
Residents of Cincinnati overwhelmingly oppose the proposed $128 million streetcar project, objecting 2-to-1 to City Hall's plan to borrow tens of millions of dollars for a plan widely viewed as a waste of taxpayer money, an Enquirer poll shows.

But a look at the cross-tabs for the poll--linked in the Enquirer's blog, but not the article itself--tells a different story. 48% of those surveyed said that the streetcar is a "waste of taxpayer money." 24% said that it "will help revitalize Cincinnati's core," and another 20% said it's a "risky project but one that should proceed anyway to help Cincinnati."

In other words, in a poll with a margin of error of 4.1%, those opposed to the streetcar outnumber those in favor by just 48% to 44%. Another 7% are unsure.

So where does this business about opposition by a 2-1 margin come from? It turns out it's in the funding mechanism. Respondents were asked, "To pay for the construction of the streetcar line, the city will borrow $64 million. Do you approve? Or disapprove?" That yielded 61% disapproving with 31% approving.

While I don't have the expertise to question instrument validity, I have to wonder if the result would have been different if those surveyed were asked if they approved or disapproved of the city "issuing $64 million in bonds," rather than "borrowing." The composition of survey questions makes an enormous difference. "Borrowing" by the government is perceived quite negatively right now, and is associated with the national debt and deficit. I'm not sure that the issuance of bonds has quite the same connotations to people, though.

In the last few minutes, another article has been posted, and this one finally notes that the number of those who support and those who oppose the streetcar are pretty even. Of course, even that one is headlined 'Poll buoys streetcar foes."

So the question is: why is the Enquirer's editorial view--that the streetcar is bad--so transparently shaping its "news" coverage? I don't have a problem with the Enquirer commissioning a poll and publishing the results, but why not report the results fairly--at least when putting the results in the news section? Randy Simes offers an answer and a proposal to boycott the Enquirer. I don't know that I agree with him on either of these, but his post is worth reading.

2. What does this say about Cincinnati's voters? Assuming (for the sake of argument) the validity of the instrument, the tepid support for the streetcar (a nearly 50-50 split) is a bit surprising. This past November, City voters elected a Council majority that favors the streetcars and re-elected a mayor who has made the streetcar the primary and central piece of his agenda. So why the disconnect between candidates' stances on issues and the poll results? Are elections really about nothing but personality? Are our voters really so disconnected as to be unaware of their candidates' positions? I don't know.

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