Pernicious push polls pervert politics

“There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” goes the old saying. It has always been true that statistics can be presented in ways that are highly deceptive and intentionally misleading.

A Midwestern city might truthfully claim that its average temperature is a perfect 74 degrees — just like the Hawaiian Islands. It could be technically true, except that the deviation from that temperature in the sub-tropical climate isn’t very great, while the Midwestern city might swing from below freezing in the winter to triple-digit heat in the summer. That comfortable-sounding “average” is sure not the full story.

Still, for susceptibility to manipulation, statistics don’t hold a candle to polling — especially political polling. During this primary season in California, the various candidates are releasing reams of polling to show how far ahead they are of their competitors. Two different polls can show diametrically opposite results, with one candidate showing he or she is leading 80 percent to 20 percent over an opponent while the opponent might claim to be ahead by a margin of 90 to 10.

The credibility of political polling took a huge hit in the last presidential election. Virtually all the polling showed Hillary Clinton coasting to a relatively easy victory over Donald Trump. In fact, his path to victory in the Electoral College was so narrow that he would have to “run the table” in every swing state — something all the pundits said was next to impossible.

What’s particularly odd about that election is that even the good polls were wrong. And by good polls we mean those administered by pollsters who don’t have a political agenda. Good pollsters will admit that their reputations depend on being accurate in their predictions.

The lesson here is that voters need to take any polling with a grain of salt. That is especially true when the polling is paid for by an interest group.

One recent example makes this clear. There has been a recent push by supporters of higher taxes to impose a statewide “fee” on the monthly water bills of all water users — homeowners and businesses — to pay for programs to deal with contaminated water supplies. Interestingly, the opposition to the proposal includes both the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, two groups frequently at odds over water-rate practices. But here, both groups have deep concerns about the state intruding in an area best left to local government interests.

Those favoring the fee — environmental and social justice groups in the Central Valley, where ground water contamination is a real problem — have argued that only the state can provide the resources necessary to combat the problem, especially because it occurs primarily in low-income communities.

Although the issue of this statewide water “fee” is not an election matter — at least not yet — both sides have produced polls they have released to the public for the purpose of swaying members of the Legislature. Not surprisingly, the polling compels two opposite conclusions. ACWA released a poll showing that 73 percent of respondents opposed the imposition of a statewide water fee. The pro-fee interests released a poll shortly thereafter claiming that 69 percent of respondents would support such a fee.

So how can two polling firms, relying on similar pools of respondents, reach opposite conclusions? One answer is that the pro-fee interests made liberal use of “push” questions in their poll.  They began by asking questions about the infamous water contamination problem in Flint, Michigan, which of course has nothing to do with California. By the time the poll got around to the issue of charging a dollar per month to deal with the problem in California, respondents would be sufficiently indoctrinated that they wouldn’t want to appear as cheapskates to the polling representative.

Interestingly, the pro-fee poll didn’t ask the one relevant question to which the answer would be very illuminating: Should communities that do not have ground water contamination be forced to pay a fee for a service from which they derive no benefit?

As Californians head to the polls in a couple of weeks and later this year, it would be a good idea to do a little research on the validity of any poll claiming to be an accurate reflection of where voters stand on any given issue or candidate. There are so many polls out there that are misleading, they’re actually starting to make statistics look good.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. This column appeared in the Orange County Register.