and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
June 2002 #1

To tax or not to tax?
Polls only say what pollsters want them to

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem Evening News
Friday, June 7, 2002

Maybe it's because I'm an individualist, and find it difficult to place people in groups and categories, but I've never quite grasped the concept of polling.

What do 400 poll respondents who, for all I know, watch Roseanne and Ricki Lake on daytime TV, have to do with me?

Citizens for Limited Taxation's founder, Ed King, explained political polling to me:

A policeman stops your car for speeding, then asks, "Do you prefer AC or DC current for your execution?" This is a false choice.

A properly presented choice would be, "Do you prefer to lose your license for a month, or a $1,000 fine?"

Somebody who was doing a survey on automobile bumper design called me, and learned nothing. He asked what year and make of car I drove, and if I liked the bumper.

Since it was wide enough to fit the larger political bumper stickers, I replied, it was just fine. Next he calls someone who wouldn't be caught dead putting a bumper sticker on her car, and he's just done a survey of apples and oranges.

Which do I prefer, apples or oranges? Apples, with bread and cheese, if I'm having lunch in the high Swiss meadow with a goatherd; oranges if I'm making juice for breakfast. What would a pollster do with that?

Well, some pollsters might ask the question differently. Try this: If the state had to make a decision to fund Clean Elections or buy every child an apple a day, which would you support? If over half the subjects ignore the false choice and support the Clean Elections ballot question, headlines might read "Poll shows that people don't want to help children keep the doctor away."

I didn't entirely make that up. A real McCormack Institute at UMass poll recently asked this question: "If the state had to make a decision to fund Clean Elections or cover the shortfall in human services, which choice would you support?" Once again, the right answer is "This is a dumb question."

Let's ask it correctly: "If the state had to make a decision to fund the voter-passed Clean Elections law, cover an alleged shortfall in human services, cover a shortfall in government administrative costs, reform the state pension law, utilize the rainy day fund, repeal the legislative expense bonuses, or auction Tom "who cares what the voters said" Finneran's office furniture, which choices would you support in order of preference?

Another question from the same spring 2002 UMass poll: "Did you support the income tax rollback on the 1998 ballot?" Actually, the wording may have confused some respondents because there was no income tax rollback on the 1998 ballot, but in November 2000 it passed with 59 percent voter support.

Less than two years later, only 44 percent answered "Yes."

Interesting -- actual vote vs. poll. Which one do you think has more validity?

Another question in the poll, published just before the House vote to end the phased-in rollback, discovered that 55 percent of voters support "postponing the income tax rollback."

The wording may have confused the respondents again because it's half a double negative: "How strongly do you support or oppose postponing the income tax rollbacks?" Possible responses were: "Strongly support, somewhat support, strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, don't know."

My partner, Chip, who successfully ran the 2002 ballot campaign, glanced at the written version and replied, "Strongly support. Wait, what?!"

Bet it's even harder to grasp when someone is reading it with a foreign accent while you're simultaneously eating pizza and watching TV, which is what I was doing two weeks ago when I told a pollster that I'd choose Salem Hospital over the Boston hospitals because my visitors wouldn't have to deal with Boston traffic. This was on my mind because Chip had just filed a complaint with the MBTA about its bus that cut him off by swerving across three lanes to make a left turn. He's since been told that the driver had to go back to bus school to give him a chance to improve. (If you get cut off by T Bus #8903, call 617-222-5215.)

Anyhow, If I'd written the rollback question, it would have asked, "Given that the 2000 ballot question phased out the 11, now 13-year-old 'temporary' income tax hike of 1989, do you actually believe that the Legislature intends to 'postpone' the rollback, or are you smart enough to know you will never see a 5 percent rate again?"

Actually, I'd just save the money and skip the entire process. Just learning what 400 people statewide think doesn't tell me a thing about the opinions of, say, the much more politically savvy readers of this column, does it?

So tell me, do you prefer the billion-dollar-plus House tax hike package, the even bigger Senate tax hike package, or the electric chair?

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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