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.
11 thoughts on “As It Turns Out It Wasn’t A Real Survey At All”
I’ll bet if you didn’t use onerous WordPress you would get many more comments.
Edward Michaels 850-653-6161
Yet another reason I won’t vote or support the charter reform. Good work John!
Clown College comes through again! They should apologize to everyone who wasted their time with their silly crap. Stay safe, Joey
Well, if these political science ‘experts’ can put out a survey with a statement that Charter change will save $500,000/year – they must have proof. Hahaha, sure – so where is it? Where is the budget? Show us the money. Show us the budget already!
My advice: Stop messing around with this ivory tower foolishness. Stop offering to meet people for coffee for one-on-one bull sessions, and just release the numbers… Are you afraid you don’t have them? I am not sure of anything, but this: I would never consider voting for Charter change if there is not a budget that is attached to it that is credible and realistic.
Perhaps the Commission believes that people will forget and just give them a blank check based on faith in their “expertise”… I don’t need a survey to tell me that this will lead to another epic fail in November. At this point I have wasted enough time commenting on this nonsense – until I see a budget, count me in as a “no.”
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Well, there will be a budget eventually, Arthur. I believe the law requires a financial statement to accompany a charter change proposal. It will be done by Jeff Altamari, Joanne Yepsen’s campaign treasurer, a former financial guy for some oil and gas Fortune 500 company. So it will be very slick and professional sounding. But the thing to keep in mind is that no matter how it is dressed up it will be a guess at best. The decision on whether the mayor will be full or part time, the decisions on salaries and benefits for the council members and the City Manager, and most importantly the whole organization and staffing of the new city government will not be decided until if and when the charter is approved. The best they can do is to offer ranges of possible salaries for the positions that they have identified that may or may not be followed by those who will eventually make those decisions. Oh, and they have to finish the charter first.
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Well, that’s fine – I appreciate what you say DD, but even some ranges with High/Middle/Low estimates would be better than what we have before us – which is nothing. And yet, a statement was released that said “$500,000 annual savings” – where did that come from? Why not $5 million, or $5?
Here’s the scenario as I see it: I am being asked to buy a new custom suit of clothes. I walk into a tailor and ask: “How much?” The answer I get is, “Don’t worry – we’ll tell you after we make your suit.”
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Way to go Arthur. I couldn’t have said it better. Vote no in November. With NO budget, Vote NO in NOvember.
John, you are just angry because you got played by an undergraduate poli sci student at your own game.
I don’t think he got ‘played’ at all. They tried to play the people with this ‘poll’ – and lost.
Well, I would say it was Bob Turner who maybe played the student and his fellow professor and who certainly played Wendy Liberatore at the Times Union, the Saratoga school district, the blogger and who knows who else until outed by the blogger.
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There were enough errors in the survey questions to suggest that they really were written by a neophyte, not a professor or professional researcher. In that case, Profs. Turner and Mann should have pointed this out to their student(s) and sent the whole thing back for a rewrite, even deleting the controversial questions and replacing them (and several others) with more sophisticated and objective content. Or, if they suggested the content in the first place, they should have known better.
While it may look like a push poll on the surface, it seems to be more of an exercise in bad judgment all around. Having spent a couple of years working for a research institute that was spun-off from Columbia University, I can imagine the academics sitting around saying something like, “What the hell, let’s have some fun with it,” but the law of unintended consequences caught up with them and the net result is that Prof. Turner is torpedoing his own commission.
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