February 22, 2011 4:46 pm ET - by Kate Conway
Desperate to manufacture national support for Gov. Scott Walker's (R-WI) attempt to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus posted a message on Twitter citing a Rasmussen poll as evidence that "America Stands with Scott Walker." Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who has issued a statement of solidarity with Gov. Walker, retweeted Priebus' message.
Noting that Rasmussen has had "problems with bias" before, however, Nate Silver explains that the results of the poll may not be reliable because the question asking respondents to take sides between the Wisconsin governor and the union workers was preceded by three questions worded to introduce bias. One of those, he wrote, was so bad that it amounted to "a talking point posed as a question."
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.
As an analogy, imagine a survey that asked respondents whether they believed the Democrats' health care overhaul included "death panels" before asking them whether they approved or disapproved of the bill over all.
Silver's advice is to "simply to disregard the Rasmussen Reports poll, and to view their work with extreme skepticism going forward." Meanwhile, a USA Today/Gallup poll out today finds that 61 percent of the public is opposed to laws like the one proposed in Wisconsin that deny public employee unions collective bargaining rights.
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