The Poll Democrats Need to Know About

Thursday, 15 April 2010 09:18 By George Lakoff, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The Poll Democrats Need to Know About
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Tiag√

Framing, value shifting, the California budget crisis, and why Democrats so often act like Republicans.

This is a case study of how inadequate polling can lead Democrats to accept and promote a radical Republican view of reality. This paper compares two polls, one excellent and revealing, the other inadequate, misleading, and counterproductive. The issues raised are framing and value-shifting (where voters shift, depending on the wording of questions, between two contradictory political world views they really hold but about different issues). It also discusses how polls can reveal the difference between what words are commonly assumed to mean, versus what they really mean to voters - and how polls can test this.

Editor's Note: If you're in the California Bay Area, please join George Lakoff at a special Truthout event on April 26th at 7pm.

It is a truism that poll results can depend on framing. For example, the New York Times reported last month on an NYT/CBS Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell poll on whether "homosexuals" or "gay men and lesbians" should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats, however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. That's a 36 percent framing shift on the same literal issue, but not surprising since the words evoked very different frames, one about sex and the other about rights. Newsworthy for the New York Times, but hardly earthshaking.

But a recent poll by David Binder, perhaps the premier California pollster, showed a framing shift of deep import for Democrats - a shift of 69 percent on the same issue, depending on the framing. It was noteworthy not just because of the size of the framing shift on the main question but because the shift was systematic. Roughly, around 18 percent of voters showed that their values are not fixed. They think both like liberals and conservatives - depending on how they understand the issue. With a liberal value-framing, they give liberal answers; with a conservative value-framing, they give conservative answers. What is most striking is that conservatively framed poll questions are all too often written by Democrats thinking they are neutral. The result is a Democratic move to the right for what are thought to be "pragmatic" reasons, but which are actually self-defeating.

Here is the background.

California is the only state with a legislature run by minority rule. Because it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to either pass a budget or raise revenue via taxation, 33.4 percent of either house can block the entire legislative process until it gets what it wants. At present 63 percent of both houses are Democrats and 37 percent are far-right Republicans who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise revenue and to shrink government until it can be drowned in a bathtub. They run the legislature by saying no. This has led to gridlock, huge deficits from lack of revenue, and cuts so massive as to threaten the viability of the state.

Unfortunately, most Californians are unaware of the cause of the crisis, blaming "the legislature," when the cause is only 37 percent of "the legislature," the 37 percent that runs the legislature under minority rule.

I realized last year that the budget crisis was really a democracy crisis, and that a ballot initiative that could be passed by only a majority could eliminate the two-thirds rule, replacing minority rule by majority rule. The idea was to bring democracy to California. Only two words need to be changed in the state Constitution, with "two-thirds" becoming "a majority" in two paragraphs, one on the budget and the other on revenue. The changes could be described in a 14-word, single-sentence initiative that went to the heart of the matter - democracy. It is called The California Democracy Act:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

One would think voters would like the idea of democracy - and a ballot initiative they could actually understand. And they do. David Binder of DBR Research recently conducted a poll showing that likely voters support it by a 73-to-22 percent margin - a difference of 51 percent.

There were 800 randomly selected likely voters, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points - and 53 questions. In short, it was a thorough and responsible poll.

In California, the attorney general gets to write the "title and summary" - the description of the initiative that actually appears on the ballot. At present, the attorney general is Jerry Brown, who is running for governor. He had announced that he was against getting rid of the two-thirds rule for taxes, though in favor of a majority for budget alone. The result would make Democrats responsible for the budget, but with no extra money to put in it they would be presiding over the further decline of the state.

When the Democracy Act came across Brown's desk, he personally penned the following title and summary:

Changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the budget, and to raise taxes from two-thirds to a simple majority. Unknown fiscal impact from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases. In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and / or state tax revenues could increase. Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future legislatures.

Instead of the original initiative text, Brown's wording would appear on the ballot if it qualified, and would have to appear on all petitions. This wording uses the word "taxes" three times, paired with the verbs "raise" and "increase," as well as the conservative phrase for vilifying liberals "spending and tax increases." When DBR Research polled voters on both the original initiative text and the Brown title and summary, the results came out as follows:

When DBR Research polled voters on both the original initiative text and the Brown title and summary, the results came out as follows

The Brown wording shifted the result by 69 percent! The largest shift Binder had ever seen.

But this was not mere wording. I had expected a large shift, but the neural theory behind my cognitive linguistics research had made a deeper prediction: Many voters have both conservative and liberal value systems in their brain circuitry, linking each value system to different issues. Each value system, when activated, shuts down the other, and each can be activated by language. The prediction was that this shift was systematic, tied to value-based ideas - not just a matter of one wording or another.

A second prediction was made from long experience. After a strong attack from the right, a liberal poll advantage on an initiative can be expected to drop by around 10 percent.

Brilliantly, the DBR poll tested both for the systematic effect and simulated the effect of a right-wing attack. The systematic effect was tested by a battery of proarguments followed by a battery of con arguments, each in distinct wording. The pro arguments were given first, followed by the battery of con arguments. Right after the con arguments, the original wording and the attorney general's title and summary were tested again.

Last modified on Thursday, 15 April 2010 13:05