Environmental Poll? Buyers Beware

Last week, a group trying to convince Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for President released a much-hyped poll. The results from Iowa and New Hampshire show 31 percent of respondents supporting Warren in a Democratic primary or caucus, versus just 26 percent supporting Hillary Clinton. Compare that result with those of a Bloomberg Politics poll released earlier this month, in which 56 percent of Democratic primary voters said Clinton would be their first pick, over Warren’s 15 percent.

Seems crazy…yes, but it is all about how the poll is taken.  And in this case, the poll includes a string of ten leading questions that paint Warren in an exceedingly favorable light to lead to the result.

While this only happens occasionally in politics, in polling on the environment, this approach is more like the regular order.  I have written several times about polls on the environment and how irrelevant they are because America doesn’t understand the complex issues surrounding the politics and policies of our environment.

We were reminded of it again recently when a poll conducted by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, found 61 percent of Republicans said that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, climate change will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future. Of the Republicans polled, 51 percent said the government should be fighting climate change.

But the 2015 NYT/Stanford poll conducted by Professor Jon Krosnick, has also come under fire from real polling companies like Gallup and Pew, who regularly measure public temperament on all issues including the environment. In fact back in 2010, Krosnick got into a public back-and-forth with Gallup and Pew over his polling methods.

In a New York Times’ Letter to the editor, Gallup said at a time of concerted effort by those concerned about climate change to raise Americans’ consciousness about its existence and dire potential consequences, American public opinion on the issue has moved in the exact opposite direction. The scientific challenge is the effort to explain why this has occurred.

Pew added “regarding poll findings about climate change, Mr. Krosnick posits that his question is more legitimate than others. It is but one approach and hardly ideal. The question’s preamble is “you may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up slowly” and then asks whether this is “probably” happening. Such wordings often encourage a positive response: this is known in the polling world as acquiescence bias. There are many different questions about climate change, none of them perfect, but almost all, except Mr. Krosnick’s, show a significant decline in belief in climate change. Pew Research not only found fewer in 2009 seeing solid evidence of global warming, but also fewer calling it a very serious problem and fewer naming warming a top priority for the president and Congress.”

The brawl over the type of questions led to follow up stories questioning the credibility of the climate polling, underscoring the fact that the polling on the environment is always highly suspect.

A second recent poll from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College said nearly seven in 10 respondents told pollsters they support EPA’s Clean Power Plan, (though it doesn’t even really exist yet) which was described as a rule “designed to reduce greenhouse gases from existing power plants.” What’s more, when asked whether their states should cooperate with the federal government, delay implementation “until more is known about the plan,” or refuse to cooperate and file suit to stop it, just 9 percent of respondents said they’d support outright refusal.  Both support for the Clean Power Plan and opposition to lawsuits ran across party lines, with just 17 percent of Republican respondents telling the pollsters they would support efforts to legally block the plan.

And it is not just the environmental community that has hinged press releases on position polling.  Industry groups certainly have offered their share as well.  A recent poll conducted by the 60 Plus Association found that a majority of senior voters are concerned about energy costs rising under EPA’s regulations.  Same issues, starkly different results.

So while we have determined nearly all issue and position polling on environmental issues is suspect, one poll that continues to matter on environmental issues is the regular polling that Gallup does on the importance of it with regard to other issues.  Yes, it always registers at or very near the bottom when compared to the economy, health care, jobs or even foreign affairs like Iran, Iraq and Israel.

And even when Gallup drills down on the topic, the evidence shows nearly all Americans worry about contamination of soil and water; pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; pollution of drinking water and the maintenance of the nation’s supply of fresh water, as well as air pollution as the most important, key issues that impact individuals or communities directly.

So clearly, the problem with environmental polling is that data is generally flawed because of the complexity of the issues, structural problems in the polling outreach and the usual gross misrepresentations of voter opinions for political purposes.  Next time you see a poll on any similar environmental issue, buyers beware.



Frank Maisano is a Founding Partner at Bracewell Giuliani’s Policy Resolution Group

Morning Consult