Bob Turner, Skidmore Government professor and chair of the Saratoga Charter Review Commission, asked me to solicit participation in a survey one of his students was working on for a project for a statistics class. Last Tuesday night I discovered that the question regarding the proposed Saratoga charter in the Skidmore student’s survey was worded as if the survey were a push poll. I immediately emailed Bob Turner. To his credit, he emailed me back late that night with his cell phone number and encouraged me to call him the next morning which I did.
His first words to me were, “you discovered it’s not a survey.” Actually, I hadn’t yet. He told me he had had no involvement in drafting the questions. He explained, though, that there was only one question that the project was really interested in. All the other questions were “filler.” The point of the exercise was to determine what would be the most effective way to word a particular question to get a favorable response. As it turned out, the topic of the question to be studied was the proposed city charter.
I was told the student is interested in being involved in political campaigns. This exercise was meant to master a technique that is being used by political strategists to determine how to present a topic in a way that will gain support from voters. Once the most effective wording is determined it can be incorporated into campaign materials.
So while participants in this survey were led to believe that the survey truly sought to determine how the public felt about certain public policy issues, this was simply not the case.
Mr. Mann writes, “This project is investigating the effects of framing on political attitudes about local issues.” Later he writes, “Perhaps the best known example today is the way adding the President’s name to a policy changes support for that policy….”
More troubling to me was the following, “The Saratoga Springs survey randomly assigned people to see different versions of questions about local issues.” I leave it to readers to make up their own minds but I believe he was trying to hide the fact that there was really only one question (not questions) that the project was concerned about and that was the question about the proposed city charter. In fact, both based on Bob Turner’s comments and my review of the pages from different surveys, there was only one issue/question that differed over the four “surveys” I was able to compare. This was the question about the charter.
From Wikipedia on Push Polls:
“A push poll is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to manipulate or alter prospective voters’ views/beliefs under the guise of conducting an opinion poll.
In a push poll, large numbers of voters are contacted with little effort made to actually collect and analyze voters’ response data. Instead, the push poll is a form of telemarketing-based propaganda and rumor mongering, masquerading as an opinion poll.”
Consider the version of the question on the charter that asserts that it will save the city $500,000.00. One wonders where the student or Mr. Mann came up with this number. The charter is not complete and no financial analysis has been done by the Charter Commission yet. Push polls depend upon people who take these push polls spreading the “message.” One can imagine someone who took the survey hanging out at work at the coffee machine the next day saying, “I understand the proposed charter will save us half a million dollars.”
Here is the page. Check the question at the top:
Given that the question of whether the city should adopt a new charter is so controversial, could Mr. Mann who, after all is a political scientist who specializes in election polling, be so unaware of the potential impact this poll might have?
It is also important to realize how widely distributed this survey was. This appeared on the Times Union website:
This appeared on the portal used by the Saratoga Springs Middle School and another similar one was posted on the High School portal. I have no idea where else they may have put it.
The Morality Of The Project
Mr. Mann notes in his comment that:
“Each student project was reviewed and approved by the Skidmore College Institutional Review Board based on federal and state research ethics rules and guidelines.”
I have no question that this project broke no laws. I find it quite credible that it met the standards of the review board and federal and state codes he references. I have no question that this is a clever tool that can be employed in political campaigns and that a student who mastered this might be very attractive to a politician putting together a paid campaign team.
Having granted all that, asking people to volunteer to assist in a student project by misrepresenting the true purpose of what they are assisting in is something that offends me personally. I apologize profusely to the people who may have responded to this survey as a result of my solicitation of their help on this blog. I must say that Bob Turner, when I pointed out my concerns, was generous enough to apologize to me.
Fundamentally, this project took advantage of people’s good will. The student and her adviser exploited the generosity of people in our community who thought they were supporting a project meant to provide insights into how this community viewed important issues. The student and adviser cynically had no interest in the answers to most of the questions they were asking. They simply wanted to master a technique on how to craft a message to maximize how to sell something. In this case it was how best to sell the idea of a proposed charter.