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Polling with a purpose, part 2

Posted by Richard on March 1, 2006

Yesterday, I wrote about how CBS News seems to use polling to shape public opinion, not to report it. Today, I want to look at how the New York Times reported the results of a NY Times / CBS News poll about the federal gasoline excise tax. Here’s the Times’ headline:

Americans Are Cautiously Open to Gas Tax Rise, Poll Shows

And here’s the lede of the story (emphasis added):

Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to a higher federal gasoline tax, but a significant number would go along with an increase if it reduced global warming or made the United States less dependent on foreign oil, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Making it clear that this is an advocacy piece, the story continues this way (emphasis added):

The nationwide telephone poll, conducted Wednesday through Sunday, suggested that a gasoline tax increase that brought measurable results would be acceptable to a majority of Americans.

Neither the Bush administration nor Democratic Party leaders make that distinction. Both are opposed to increasing the gasoline tax as a means of discouraging consumption, although President Bush, in recent speeches, has called for the development of alternative energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

So there’s the Times’ message: the American people are decent, unselfish, and planet-loving enough to accept higher gas taxes for a noble cause, but their leaders are letting them down. Is that an accurate characterization? To find out, you have to look at the poll questions (PDF). When I did, I was immediately struck by how the questions manipulate a person who wants to think of himself as civic-minded and caring. I’ll paraphrase them to emphasize my point:

Would you favor a gas tax increase? 12% Favor
What if there were offsetting payroll or income tax cuts? 28% Favor
What if it cut our dependence on foreign oil, you selfish bastard? 55% Favor
Now we’re talking! What if it saved the planet? You want to save the planet, don’t you? 59% Favor
OK, let’s calm down. What if the tax increase were $2/gallon? 17% Favor
And it helped pay for the war on terrorism? 24% Favor

Notice how the first four questions form a progression that’s virtually guaranteed to produce increasing support numbers. Then they throw in the dash of cold water ($2/gallon) just in time to bring down the support number for financing the war.

People care what others think of them, even anonymous pollsters, and research has shown that people are much more likely to claim they practice "virtue" than to actually practice it. "I always pick up after my dog. I hardly ever eat junk food. I exercise vigorously four times a week. I want my taxes increased to make the world a better place for children and puppies — really, I do."

The poll did provide an indication of just how willing to pay higher taxes the respondents really are. Here’s the question:

In order to cut down on energy consumption and reduce global-warming, which would you prefer — requiring car manufacturers to produce cars that are more energy efficient OR imposing an increased federal tax on gasoline?

8% preferred the tax increase. Given a choice, only 8% opted for the solution that would cost them money. Of course, the Times story didn’t mention that question; it was too busy throwing carefully selected quotes from carefully selected respondents at you — quotes designed to reinforce the message of the story, that decent, unselfish, planet-loving people would be happy to pay higher gas taxes.

As for those of you who think cutting gasoline consumption is a pretty good idea — did you speak out in support of the gas price increases last fall? Or do you only support incentives to conserve when they benefit the government instead of the oil companies?

You know, the oil companies spend their increased revenue on exploration, infrastructure, research, and dividend payments to widows and orphans, while the government — well…

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