I’ve always believed that consumers of poll data are welcome to draw their own conclusions about what the data mean and how they apply to legislative settings. However, almost two decades as a pollster have also shown me that partisans can occasionally twist poll data to mean just about anything they want it to.
In that spirit, I’d like to respond to what I consider misguided conclusions in a Star Tribune editorial (“Poll: Make education a legislative priority,” May 12) about a survey that my company, Meeting Street Research, conducted on behalf of the Center of the American Experiment.
First, the editorial discounted our finding that Minnesotans reject higher gas taxes and suggested that our questionnaire skewed the response through a misleading question. I say “discounted our finding” because the editorial didn’t disagree that voters rejected a gas tax by more than two to one (65 percent to 29 percent) in favor of existing sales taxes on automobile-related expenses. Instead, it discounted voters’ opinion, saying that “most people’s knee-jerk response” to paying more taxes for any purpose is “no.”
On top of this, the editorial called it “remarkable” that 29 percent supported a higher gas tax, since, it said, my question had “advised respondents that some Minnesota legislators say existing taxes are sufficient to do the transportation job.”
This is simply not accurate. The question wording made no mention at all that Minnesota legislators say existing taxes are sufficient and made no value judgments about either option, merely asking for a choice between two extant options.
The editorial also trumpeted that three out of five respondents favor expansion of light-rail transit in the Twin Cities, “even as they also favor better roads and bus service.” This conclusion proves how taking one question out of context can misread an overall result.
Yes, 61 percent of voters support expanding light-rail projects (35 percent oppose). But 65 percent of voters say they support prioritizing funding for updating roads and bridges over funding for mass transit like light rail.
It’s not surprising to see voters support “expanding” this or “building” when no cost or trade-off is required. However, that’s not the world in which our elected officials operate. So when we asked voters if they had to make a choice, their response was very clear — prioritize updating roads and bridges over light rail. Even a majority (67 percent) of those who support expanding light-rail projects still support prioritizing funding for roads and bridges over light rail.
The editorial also makes a bit of a stretch when it proclaims that “more education investment” tops Minnesotans’ priorities for the 2015 Legislature by a strong margin.
We asked voters to select the two issue areas they believe should be the top priorities for the governor and the Legislature. “Education” did rank at the top of the list, with 36 percent choosing it as either their first or second priority. But the wording of that issue area wasn’t “education investment” or “more funding for education.” It was simply “education” — so there is no justification to claim that everyone who selected “education” as one of their top issues did so out of a desire to see more funding for education.
Finally, the editorial glosses over a key point about the economy by pointing to the fact that most believe the state’s economy has gotten better (and is in better shape than the nation as a whole). Yes, there is a strong feeling that the state’s economy is on the upward trajectory — 46 percent of voters say the economy in Minnesota has gotten better over the last year (10 percent say it has gotten worse; 42 percent say it has stayed the same). Moreover, 61 percent say they believe Minnesota’s economy is better than the nation’s as a whole.
But there is a very real sense that what’s happening at the macro level isn’t necessarily what’s happening at the micro level. Those who say their personal financial situation has gotten better amount to only 20 percent, while 16 percent say it has gotten worse in the past year (63 percent say it has stayed the same). In fact, two-thirds of those who believe Minnesota’s economy has gotten better in the last year say their own personal financial situation has not gotten better (8 percent say it has gotten worse, 60 percent say it has stayed the same, 32 percent say it has gotten better).
That “32 percent gotten better” (out of the 46 percent who believe the state’s economy has improved) amounts to only 15 percent of voters statewide who say that both the state’s economy and their own personal financial situation have gotten better in the last year.
I believe this paints quite a different picture than what the Star Tribune’s editorial displayed.
Rob Autry is founder of Meeting Street Research, based in Charleston, S.C.