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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wisconsin Union Action, the Death Penalty, and Natalie Portman

Two headlines Thursday morning (March 10) highlighted how the same political action can be described in different ways by different observers.  The political action I'm talking about here is the vote by Wisconsin Senate Republicans relating to Wisconsin's state employee unions. The Washington Post's headline Thursday morning on their website was as follows: “Wis. Senate Strips Workers’ Bargaining Rights.” The New York Times headline Thursday morning on their website was: “Wisconsin Senate Limits Bargaining by Public Workers.”

To the casual observer, these headlines might seem similar. But the results of two recent Gallup surveys show how these types of wording differences can produce different reactions from the American public.

The Washington Post headline mirrors the wording used in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on Feb. 21 in which Americans were asked about a plan in Wisconsin to “ . . . take away some of the collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers’ union.” The results showed 33% in favor with 61% opposed.

The New York Times headline mirrors the wording used in a separate Gallup poll conducted March 3-6 in which Americans were asked about a plan (Wisconsin not specified) that would involve “Changing state laws to limit the bargaining power of state employee unions.” The results showed 49% in favor, 45% opposed.

Now a number of things were different between these two surveys, including most obviously the passage of time. Also, the February survey focused on Wisconsin specifically, while the March survey focused on “your state.” The February survey question was a stand alone item asked by itself, the March survey item was included in a list of seven different ways that a state budget deficit could be reduced. So there are a number of reasons why the results could be as different as they were.

But certainly the way in which the situation was described in the two surveys was a factor. The February wording mentioned “take away” and “collective bargaining rights” and “public unions.” This wording reflects how the situation in Wisconsin has been typified in many news accounts, as typified by The Washington Post headline Thursday morning. In fact, two other polls, conducted by The New York Times/CBS News and The Wall Street Journal/NBC News, used very similar wording to describe the situation in their questions, and found very similar results.

The March Gallup survey, on the other hand, used the word "limit” rather than “take away” and stipulated “the bargaining power” of “state employee unions.” Certainly, it is a reasonable hypothesis that the differences between “take away” versus “limit” and “rights” versus “bargaining power” could have made a difference.  Americans may be reluctant to endorse the removal of "rights", but more willing to curtail "power".  And so on.

I devoted a chapter to this in my book Polling Matters.  Some people ask me:  "Which is truth?"  My answer:   public opinion on this volatile issue is operating within a range at the moment, depending on exactly what happens in reality, how well the public understands what happens, and how the issue is described to the average citizen not living in Wisconsin and who is not following its every nuance. We learn from these types of differences in survey responses.  Framing the actions taken by the Wisconsin Senate as a removal of rights may well engender more support for the union from the public, while framing it as a more benign limiting of bargaining power may engender more support for the proposed state government actions.  All of this effort to describe an issue in a way that is favorable to one's cause is part of the political process -- particularly as an issue like this begins to get hotter and hotter. 

If the issue in Wisconsin becomes more and more of a national issue in the days ahead, we may reach a point where we simply ask:  "In Wisconsin, do you favor the side of the Governor and Republican lawmakers, or the side of the state employee unions and Democratic lawmakers". 

The Death Penalty

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn over the weekend signed a bill into law that banned the death penalty in Illinois and emptied out death row. Although we don’t have Gallup data just for the state of Illinois, we know that nationwide the death penalty continues to be favored in cases of murder by a fairly strong majority of Americans. This occurs even though a majority of Americans recognize that people have been put to death who later have been found innocent. 

Natalie Portman

Former Arkansas governor and possible 2012 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee criticized Academy Award winning actress (and Harvard graduate) Natalie Portman the other day because she is pregnant and unmarried. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister,  said " . . . it's unfortunate that society often glorifies and glamorizes the idea of having children out of wedlock."

This is reminiscent of the criticism leveled by then Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 against the television sitcom Murphy Brown because the titular character (played by actress Candice Bergen) was single and pregnant on the show. Quayle criticized the way in which Brown “a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly-paid professional woman" is portrayed as "mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'life-style choice.'"

How does this criticism comport with American attitudes? 

We ask Americans each May in our annual Moral Values survey whether they find “having a baby outside of marriage” to be morally acceptable or morally wrong. The latest data from our May 2010 survey finds that 54% say it is morally acceptable and 40% say it is morally wrong.

In other words, taking the nation as a whole, Huckabee's views are in the minority.

Of course there are political differences. Only 41% of Huckabee’s fellow Republicans say that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, compared to 61% of Democrats. So, in terms of primary voters, Huckabee is preaching to the choir.  Which may be what matters if he decides to enter the race for the GOP nomination.

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