As rallies supportive of Wisconsin's public employees continue around the country, right-wing media have reacted by falsely suggesting that Americans support Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker over the state's public employee union members. However, most public opinion polls suggest the opposite: that the majority of Americans stand in support of public workers, and the February 21 Rasmussen poll widely cited by conservatives has been criticized by polling experts as containing questions that “may have biased the responses.”
Right-Wing Spin Polling To Claim Public Supports Walker
Rasmussen Poll: “Nearly Half” Of Voters “Side With The Governor” Of Wisconsin. In a poll dated February 21, Rasmussen Reports showed that 48 percent of those polled backed Walker in his methods to eliminate collective bargaining rights for union workers in that state. [Rasmussen Reports, 2/21/11]
WSJ: The Country “Seems To Be Listening And Absorbing [Walker's] Message.” A March 1 Wall Street Journal editorial stated:
Notice, too, how fiercely the public unions are willing to fight for collective bargaining power even if it means public job layoffs. Without Mr. Walker's budget reforms, Wisconsin will have to begin laying off thousands of workers as early as today. The unions would rather give up those jobs -- typically for their younger members -- than give up their political negotiating advantages. They know some future Governor or legislature will get those jobs back, as long as they retain their inordinate political clout.
This is the imbalance of political power that Mr. Walker is trying to break up, and he is right to do so. As important, the public in Wisconsin and around the U.S. seems to be listening and absorbing his message. [The Wall Street Journal, 3/1/11]
Fox & Friends Reverses Poll Results, Falsely Claims Lack Of Support For Union Workers. During the February 23 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade falsely stated that 61 percent of people polled in a USA Today/Gallup poll supported the end of collective bargaining for public unions and showed a graphic to illustrate this point. Later in the broadcast, Kilmeade retracted his mistake, stating that he “had it reversed,” blaming himself for the mistake. However, the prepared graphic was also incorrect. [Media Matters, 2/23/11; 2/23/11]
Hannity: “The People Support The Governor.” Citing the Rasmussen poll during the February 22 broadcast of his Fox News program, Sean Hannity revealed the results of a show poll on whether his viewers supported Walker or the unions:
HANNITY: That was tremendous. All right, now, we did this poll, it's time to reveal the results of tomorrow's big question tonight. We asked you about Wisconsin's budget woes and we wanted to know who's side you were on, 94 percent side with Governor Walker. The union's got 6 percent of the vote and zero percent of you are still undecided.
We have a very -- there are a lot of equivocation out there. It fits with Rasmussen's poll. The people support the governor. We had this guy on tonight saying no -- they are out of touch. What do you think the unions are missing here in this debate? [Fox News' Hannity, 2/22/11, accessed via Nexis]
O'Reilly Uses Rasmussen Poll To Discredit Gallup Poll. During the February 23 edition of his Fox News program, Bill O'Reilly cited the Rasmussen poll in order to discredit a Gallup poll on the same topic:
O'REILLY: But “The New York Times” continues to spin the Wisconsin situation in favor of the union and other media are doing the same thing. A new Gallup poll out today says that most Americans do not want unions to be destroyed. Dick Morris will react to that in just a few moments. However, a Rasmussen Poll released earlier this week says that most Americans who have an opinion side with Governor Walker in his quest to diminish union power. [Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, 2/23/11, accessed via Nexis]
Hoft Declares NYT/CBS Poll Is “Bogus.” In a March 1 post to his blog, Jim Hoft wrote that the New York Times/CBS poll regarding overwhelming union support was “bogus” and “a crock. It was only published to shift support away from Governor Scott Walker.” [Gateway Pundit, 3/1/11]
Pollsters Have Criticized Rasmussen's Poll, Claiming It “Biased” Responses
Silver: “Because Of The Problems With Question Design ... Disregard The Rasmussen Reports Poll.” Polling expert Nate Silver analyzed the Rasmussen poll and concluded that "[t]he poll, which included people that Rasmussen deemed to be 'likely voters' from across the country, found that 48 percent of respondents agreed more with Mr. Walker in the dispute, while 38 percent agreed more with 'the union for teachers and other state employees.' That question, though, was the fourth one Rasmussen asked in the survey -- and the questions that came before it may have biased the responses." Silver explained:
The issue is clearest with the third question, which asked respondents whether “teachers, firemen and policemen” should be allowed to go on strike. By invoking the prospect of such strikes, which are illegal in many places (especially for the uniformed services) and which many people quite naturally object to, the poll could potentially engender a less sympathetic reaction toward the protesters in Wisconsin. It is widely recognized in the scholarship on the subject, and I have noted before, that earlier questions in a survey can bias the response to later ones by framing an issue in a particular way and by casting one side of the argument in a less favorable light.
The Rasmussen example is more blatant than most. While many teachers have been among the protesters at the State Capitol in Madison, obliging the city to close its schools for days, there have been no reports of reductions in police or fire services, and in fact, uniformed services are specifically exempted from the proposals that the teachers and other public-sector employees are protesting. So bringing in the uniformed services essentially makes No. 3 a talking point posed as a question.
The second question in the Rasmussen poll found that 36 percent of respondents believe that public-sector employees earn more than private-sector workers in their state, while 21 percent thought public sector workers earned less, and 20 percent thought they earned about the same amount.
In fact, according to an analysis by USA Today, state employees earn about 5 percent less than comparable employees in the private sector, on average, although federal employees receive significantly (20 percent) more.
A poll is not a pop quiz, and the respondents in the survey are not to blame for giving the “wrong” response. Also, the question posed by Rasmussen, which did not consider the type of work performed and asked simply about average salaries in the respondent's home state, was not exactly the same as the one studied by USA Today, which covered the whole country and took account of the the type of work done. Still, to the extent that this misperception about pay levels is widely held and casts public employees in a less favorable light, a survey question that reminds respondents of it could bias responses to later questions.
Because of the problems with question design, my advice would be simply to disregard the Rasmussen Reports poll, and to view their work with extreme skepticism going forward. [The New York Times, 2/21/11]
Blumenthal: “Rasmussen's Results Raise More Questions Than They Answer.” Pollster Mark Blumenthal's analysis of Rasmussen's poll similarly argued that the order in which the questions were asked of respondents could have biased the response. He further argued: “The more typical approach would involve asking a more general version of question one ('how closely have you been following the dispute between the Governor of Wisconsin and the public employee unions in Wisconsin?') and then go immediately to something like question four.” [The Huffington Post, 2/21/11]
Other Public Opinion Polls Show Widespread Support For Public Employees
NYT/CBS Poll Shows Overwhelming Support For Union Workers. In the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, results show that “Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent. While a slim majority of Republicans favored taking away some bargaining rights, they were outnumbered by large majorities of Democrats and independents who said they opposed weakening them.” [The New York Times, 2/28/11]
USA Today/Gallup Poll Shows Majority Support For Union Workers. In a USA Today/Gallup Poll from February 22, results show that while Republicans supported limiting the rights of union workers by a 54 percent to 41 percent margin, 79 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents polled were against the limitation of union bargaining rights, representing the majority of total persons polled. As USA Today reported, overall, "[t]he poll found 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to such a proposal in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law." [USA Today, 2/22/11]