As protesters besiege Madison, Wis., for an eighth consecutive day of demonstrations, stakeholders on both sides and interested observers are looking for measurements of public opinion to demonstrate where Wisconsinites and Americans in general stand on the budget showdown between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and unions representing state workers.
Two polls released today by the AFL-CIO, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, claim that likely Wisconsin voters oppose Walker and support public employees. Meanwhile, an automated telephone poll conducted last week by conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports claims that "nearly half" of nationwide likely voters side with the newly-inaugurated Walker in the dispute. (Automated telephone polls typically do not meet Hotline On Call's standards for publication.)
Obviously, the biggest difference between the two surveys is that Democratic polls are of likely voters in Wisconsin, while the Rasmussen robo-poll is of likely voters across the country. But there are other key differences between the two that help explain their divergent findings.
Rasmussen first asks respondents how closely they have "followed news reports about the Wisconsin governor's effort to limit collective bargaining rights for most state employees." Then, the automated interrogator asks whether "the average public employee in your state" earns more, less or the same amount as the "average private sector worker in your state."
The next question, as Mark Blumenthal
, Nate Silver
and others have pointed out, is the most curious: "Should teachers, firemen and policemen be allowed to go on strike?"
Only after those three questions is the respondent asked whether they "agree more with the governor or the union for teachers and other state employees." The questions seems likely to prime the respondent to side with the governor, especially in light of the fact that police and fire services are exempted from Walker's proposal to limit collective-bargaining rights.
The Democratic polls carry with them the obvious caveats about partisan polling. But the question order of those two surveys appears more sound than the Rasmussen poll. Following standard questions about the respondent's voter registration and 2012 vote-likelihood, the more recent of the two surveys asks a de rigueur
approve/disapprove question about Walker (41% approve, 51% disapprove). The older survey asks a standard right track (40%)/wrong track (48%) question about the state before the Walker approve (44%)/disapprove (50%) question.
Moving on to the questions about the budget stand-off, respondents are asked in the more recent survey how closely they "have been following the protests at the state capitol," without explaining the nature of the protests. Then, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner asks whether the respondent agrees or disagrees with how Walker and various other groups are handling the situation, finding -- in general -- support for state workers and opposition to Walker. Compared to the Rasmussen poll, the questions in the Democratic polls are better designed to test voters' general opinions on the situation, before examining more specific issues.
Prudence dictates against reading too much into one poll, particularly when dealing with automated and partisan polls. But we be can certain that these surveys are only the first measures of public opinion forthcoming on the situation in the Badger State. And, as with these polls, the order and wording of the questions will warrant close scrutiny.
The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research polls were conducted Feb. 19-20 and Feb. 16-20, respectively. The Feb. 19-20 poll was of 402 likely voters in Wisconsin, for a margin of error of +/- 4.9%; the older poll was of 603 likely voters and carries a margin of error of +/- 4.0%. The Rasmussen poll was conducted via automated telephone calls from Feb. 18-19; 1,000 likely voters were surveyed, for a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.
Update, 3:20 p.m. --
A new USA Today
/Gallup poll released
as this story was published asked respondents, "Would you favor or oppose a law in your state taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers union?"
Just a third of the 1,000 adults in the national one-day survey, conducted Monday, said they would support such a law, while more than three-in-five (61%) said they would oppose that law.
The USA Today/Gallup poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.