It’s All About How You Ask the Question
So the latest Field Poll is out and it does not provide comforting numbers for the high speed rail project. But before we look at the numbers, we need to look at how the question is asked.
Field is the gold standard of public opinion research in California, and their numbers usually turn out right. (Unless you’re Tom Bradley in 1982.) They tend to do their polling in batches, asking several questions at once, and then releasing the results over the course of several days, grouped by campaign/politician or by issue. For example, in recent days Field has released polling on approval ratings for Governor Jerry Brown and Congress, a horse race poll on the Republican presidential field, and even a poll on public attitudes toward the Occupy movement.
What this means is that Field doesn’t necessarily go out and do a series of calls to voters on just one of those issues. They ask about a range of issues all at once, although not everyone gets asked about everything, as Field explains:
The findings in this report are based on a Field Poll survey completed November 15-27, 2011 among a random sample of 1,000 registered voters in California. In order to cover a broad range of issues and still minimize respondent fatigue, the questions in this release were asked of a random subsample of 515 voters.
So they didn’t just do a poll exclusively on high speed rail. It was part of a bigger poll. That’s important, because it means they didn’t ask a wide range of questions on the project. And as we’ll see, that explains the numbers they found.
What did Field ask about HSR?
Have you seen, read or heard anything about California’s High Speed Rail project, a proposed passenger train service that when completed would link Southern California, the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area?
(IF VOTED IN NOVEMBER 2008 ELECTION) In the November 2008 statewide election, Californians voted on a bond measure, Proposition 1A, to establish the High Speed Rail project. Thinking back to that election, do you recall having voted YES to approve or NO to reject the High Speed Rail Bond measure?
Nine billion dollars in state bonds were approved by California voters for the High Speed Rail project in the November 2008 election. At the time, the project’s estimated cost was 43 billion dollars and its targeted completion date was 2020. More current estimates now put its cost at 98 billion dollars and its completion date as 2033. Some think that the state legislature should resubmit the bond package to voters for another public vote next year. Regardless of how you feel about the project, do you favor or oppose the legislature putting the 9 billion dollar state bond package to another public vote in next year’s statewide elections?
Suppose that 9 billion dollars in state bonds for the California High Speed Rail project were put before voters again in a statewide election ballot. If the election were being held today, would you vote YES to approve or NO to reject this bond package?
Field is not asking a neutral question about the HSR project. By framing the project as one beset by cost overruns, without listing any of the other project benefits or the costs of not building HSR, it should be no surprise that they got results like this:
Favor another vote on HSR?
No opinion: 6%
Would you vote to approve $9 billion in bonds if re-voted?
The above question asked of those who voted Yes on Prop 1A:
The way one asks poll questions is significant. If all the person on the line hears is “this project has huge cost overruns, so do you still support it?” the answer in 6 out of 10 cases is likely to be “no.” I would be shocked if the outcome was any better for the HSR project given the way the question was asked.
But what if the question were asked differently? We know that the cost questions are not the only issue associated with the project. Gas prices are rising, airfares are rising, flying is inconvenient, people prefer high speed trains to planes when given the choice, we need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce global warming, the cost of alternative transportation to carry the same amount of people is $170 billion, HSR brings tens of thousands of desperately needed jobs.
How would voters respond if the question were framed in that way? The outcome could be very different.
And if a re-vote were indeed held, voters would be given all of those messages – the cost issues, as well as the benefits. A good guide to public opinion on the HSR project would therefore poll with questions asked with all of those frames, positive and negative.
What would the results then show? Who knows. There’s been a lot of polling over the last 3 years showing support for the project. A February 2011 Harris Poll found 70% of voters supported funding the HSR project. That support didn’t collapse between then and now. It’s all about how the question is asked.
Already the media is trying to spin this new Field Poll as “omg voters are turning against the HSR project!!!” In fact, all the polls says is “if people are told only that the project’s costs have risen, then they become less willing to support it.” It doesn’t actually indicate what voters would do if a re-vote were held because it did not test all messages and frames.
I would caution readers, commenters, and media outlets from reading too much into this Field Poll given its limitations. But I’m guessing people have already made up their minds about what it means, good or bad. I’m not happy to see these numbers, but neither am I surprised and I am certainly not concerned or worried about the project’s future.
That would change if I saw numbers that showed, even after positive and negative messages were tested, that poll respondents did not support the project any longer. But no poll has yet shown that – at least none that I have seen.
Ultimately this makes it all the more important to get construction started, and to get more federal funding to help ease voter concerns about the cost issue.