New Adventures in Polling

It’s that time where we’re talking about the Goucher Poll again. And as is often the case, the Goucher Poll does not tell us everything that many folks think it does.

I’m not going to spend this entire piece burying the polling sample methodology, which Greg touched on yesterday and which we have discussed on multiple locations with multiple polls. The quick version: polls that are conducted of adults (not likely voters or even registered voters) using random digit dialing are not as statistically relevant and statistically significant as polls conducted using identified samples of likely voters. The registered voters in this sample (707 of the 808 respondents) are self-identified. But it is what it is and Dr. Mileah Kromer and her Goucher Poll team have to go to war with the army they have.

(Fun fact though: more Marylanders identify themselves as conservatives than progressives. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, lefties).

No, the big issue here is the questions that were asked of the respondents.

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Let’s take a look at the six specific issue-based questions that were asked by the Goucher Poll team:

  • Do you think the state government spends [too much, too little, or about the right amount] to fund public education in Maryland?
  • Do you [support or oppose] raising the minimum age for the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products in Maryland from 18 to 21?
  • Changing topics, do you [support or oppose] raising the state minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour?
  • Do you [support or oppose] making marijuana legal for recreational use in Maryland?
  • Do you [support or oppose] a statewide ban on Styrofoam products such as food containers, plates, and cups?
  • As you may have heard, a policy recently was proposed that would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a prescription for a fatal dose of drugs from a willing doctor. To be eligible, these patients would have to be diagnosed as having less than six months to live, be mentally competent, and self-administer the drugs. Do you [oppose or support] this policy?

The questions themselves are grossly simplistic. That’s not to say Dr. Kromer and company can be faulted for that. Their job in conducting the Goucher Poll is to get a snapshot in time on the issues.  The only question which one could take serious umbrage with is the last question listed, which goes pretty much all the way around the barn to not use the word “suicide.”

The issue with this is the fact that these opinions are often delivered in somewhat of a vacuum. Respondents, many of whom may not be likely voters who actually pay attention to the things that are going on in Annapolis, are providing what basically amounts to an emotional gut-level response. There isn’t a lot of nuance or deep thought going into these responses.

For example:

Again, the issue here is not with the Goucher Poll folks. They only have the attention of the respondent for so much time and again other than the obtuse question regarding assisted suicide the questions boil down the issue to its most basic level. The problem becomes with the informed electorate and the issue that we have been talking about for years regarding the lack of serious local news coverage in the state. In an era where people are getting a lot of information on Facebook and a lot of that information is centered on Washington, it’s hard to put a lot of faith in polling questions on specific state and local issues when questions are provided with as little context as these are. And that says nothing about the potential intensity of voters on these issues. Voters may have an opinion about these things and even with greater context, their opinion may match up with the numbers above. But do we really know how much they actually care? Not necessarily, because we don’t know how important these specific issues are to them.

The second part of the Goucher Poll released at midnight asked voters an open-ended question about what they thought was the most important issue facing Maryland. Education hit 16%, drugs 5%, envrionment 4%. Assisted suicide isn’t anywhere on the map. Even then, these percentages are just generalized buckets of topics and don’t necessarily relate to the specific questions polled above. So we really don’t know how important those six issues are to the electorate, but we know that those six issues don’t register anywhere near the top of the most important thing poll respondents think Maryland should be dealing with.

Another reason to doubt the true intensity and the true importance of these numbers came last November. Compare the support that these issues received to the platform of 2018 Democratic nominee Ben Jealous. Jealous supported more funding for education (64% of respondents), raising the smoking age (66%), raising the minimum wage (66%), legalizing marijuana (57%) and assisted suicide (62%). If you believe the poll, then Ben Jealous was tailor-made for Maryland’s electorate. Despite that, Jealous got demolished by Governor Larry Hogan on Election Day.

On top of the election results the new Goucher Poll approval rating of Governor Hogan, who either opposes or is agnostic on a lot of the issues discussed above, is 69%.

The key is context. When polling on issues the voter often does not know the context of the issue they’re being asked about. While local coverage of issues and campaigns is still not what it needs to be, voters do have more context and understanding of the candidates on the ballot and what they stand for. And when voters are presented with a statewide candidate who supports the issues that they ostensibly support they tend to reject that candidate in favor of a more conservative choice.

Democrats are doing what they do best which is overhype and overreact to polling results without stopping to understand the whole picture. But all of us need to understand that concerns with the inability to understand the respondents breadth of knowledge and their intensity on those issues should make anybody take a breath before relying on this data to show a true representation as to where the voters are.

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