Last week, MinnPost released its inaugural public opinion poll, another step in it’s maturation as an increasingly central part of the Minnesota news landscape. I maintain polls are an important part of news coverage in a democracy, and Minnpost proved it last week when it was the first to tell the story of the public blaming Republicans, by a 2-to-1 margin, for the bitterly debated government shutdown. After months of wonky budget debate coverage, it was interesting to read about the public verdict, as measured by a random sample survey. Our little MinnPost is growing up.
But I have higher aspirations for MinnPost. In the future, I hope MinnPost polls will focus on more than just “approval,” “blame,” and “if the election were held today” questions. Goodness knows, that ground is already covered ad nauseum by the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, University of Minnesota Humphrey School, St. Cloud State and many others.
I hope MinnPost, or someone else in that pack, also asks questions that probe the values underpinning the opinions. For example, they could ask something like this:
“I’m going to read to you reasons some people have given for disapproving of the job Governor Mark Dayton has done. For each, tell me how compelling you find each of these reasons (very compelling, somewhat compelling, not very compelling, not at all compelling):
1) He has been too unwilling to compromise with legislative leaders;
2) He has been too quick to cave in to legislative leaders’ demands;
3) He hasn’t done enough to keep his campaign promise to create jobs;
4) His positions are too liberal;
5) His positions are too conservative;
6) His positions are too “middle-of-the-road;”
7) I don’t really know what he stands for as a leader;
8 ) He just doesn’t come across as a strong leader.
Similarly, they could ask a battery of questions probing public approval of “the Legislature as a whole” and “the legislators who represent you personally,” since those mindsets historically have tended to vary significantly. MinnPost can accommodate this deeper level of learning, because it’s online format allows for longer pieces, and its civically engaged readership will tolerate it.
If you don’t see the value in probing, look no further than surveys about health care reform. Many news media pollsters only ask whether respondents support or oppose the health care reform law. Consumers of those news media polls then usually jump to the conclusion that those who answered “oppose” want no reform, or less government involvement in health care.
But news outlets whose polls probe more deeply learn that many Americans actually oppose the health reform law because they want MORE government intervention – a public option or a single payer system — not less. For example, a CNN poll a few months back found only 43% supporting the health reform law. BUT, CNN also uncovered that 13% of opponents opposing it because it’s “not liberal enough.” That means, that 56% (i.e 43% plus 13%) either support the health reform law as is or want it stronger.
This is hardly the ringning endorsement of Tea Partyism that many news outlets, including CNN, were reporting at the time. It’s a perfect example why designing polls to learn about the “why” of an issue is so important.
Getting at the “whys” of the horserace poll questions is as important as getting at the “whats.” Is Dayton getting lower approval ratings because he is perceived to be compromising too little or too much? Is he considered too liberal or not liberal enough? Do most of Dayton’s detractors think he didn’t cut enough spending enough or do they think he should have spent more to create jobs? Is he losing approval because of his ideology or his leadership style?
This kind of probing delivers a much richer level of understanding than simple “approval/disapproval” style horserace questions. And that kind of news media polling would certainly be in keeping with the MinnPost motto, “a thoughtful approach to news.”