Questions the Pollster Didn't Ask

CAROL A. ARSCOTT

March 07, 1992|By CAROL A. ARSCOTT

RAISE TAXES,'' the headline shrieked. ''And stop slashing state programs,'' the article went on to report. ''That's the clear message from Marylanders surveyed in the Sun Poll.''

It was a heck of a way for a fiscal conservative to start a Monday morning, but it got my attention. My bleary eyes struggled to focus on the fire-engine-red ''Sun Poll'' logo.

Honestly, I would have been intensely interested in reading about a poll that could produce such an astonishing result even without the inch-high headline . . . and even if I hadn't been one of the 1,210 Maryland voters surveyed. Call it fate, call it dumb luck. I think it was rather remarkable that someone in my position was randomly selected to be polled by the Baltimore Sun, particularly on this topic.

Before I began reading the ''RAISE TAXES'' story, I scanned the graphs accompanying the article. The results were disappointing, but hardly surprising, knowing in advance what questions had been posed. Persuading people to beg for higher taxes isn't all that difficult if you know which questions to ask and you ask them in the right order and at the right pace. The Sun Poll accomplished this quite effectively.

Perhaps even more important to the poll's results were the questions that went unasked, and the choices that were not offered. The omissions that allowed a ''RAISE TAXES'' conclusion to be drawn from a random sample of Maryland voters, I believe, call the results of your entire survey into question.

The questions about the state budget came at about the midway point of the survey, and began with a statement that went something like this:

There are two budget alternatives. One alternative would maintain current levels of spending for essential services and involve modest tax increases. The other would not increase taxes at all, but would require deep cuts in spending -- for things like education and health care.

''Which alternative would you prefer?'' the interviewer asked.

Which alternative would you prefer -- the itsy, bitsy tax increase or the BIG BUDGET CUTS? Why is it that an $800 million tax hike is considered negligible while an $800 million spending cut is nothing short of devastating?

I told the interviewer that I didn't accept either of those alternatives, that there were other choices. ''Can I say that?'' I asked. She assured me that I could. No doubt my response was recorded as ''Don't Know.''

But I do know. There is a no-tax-increase budget alternative that holds overall spending at current levels: the House Republican Caucus' plan, but nothing approximating it was presented as a possible choice in the poll.

I can't help but wonder how the poll's results might have been differed if this third alternative had been offered as a survey option. But given only two choices, it's hardly surprising that most respondents chose modest tax increases over deep cuts. Who wouldn't?

Next came the ''are-you-willing-to-pay-higher-taxes-for'' questions. If the budget question was simplistic, these were just plain manipulative.

''Are you willing to pay more taxes for food and medical care for poor children?'' the pollster asked. I sighed before I replied in the negative, and I wondered what sort of person the interviewer must have thought I was.

A whole litany of these queries followed, each cause more compelling than the one before. This is an effective technique, what pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research calls ''babies and puppies'' questions. It was relentless, but I just said no, over and over again.

At last came the question that tied up the whole package with a neat little bow. By a stunning 48-30 margin, poll respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a legislator who voted to raise taxes to maintain government services.

I've been around politics a long time, but I have never heard a voter say anything remotely like, ''Gee, I'm disappointed in Delegate X. He hasn't raised my taxes. I think I'll send him a pink slip.'' In the context of the previous questions, however, this response was completely logical.

Here again, the lack of valid options skewed the results of the survey. The Sun had an opportunity to learn what Maryland voters think the priorities of government ought to be, and passed it up.

Voters might well say they are willing to pay higher taxes for education -- and mean it, too -- but are they willing to accept a tax increase to maintain the state's office in Hong Kong? Are they willing to pay higher taxes to ensure that there are ample funds in the legislative scholarship program? How about for more television advertising for the lottery? The stadium? The prevailing-wage law? Thirteen paid state holidays? Scheduled pay raises for your delegates and senator next year?

Taxpayers are more than willing to pay their fair share for what they believe is important, but they are not at all willing to see their hard-earned wages squandered.

Until I was polled by The Baltimore Sun, I don't think I fully understood how important the question not posed or the choice not offered could be. A multiple-choice survey, by definition, has its limits, but it shouldn't be so confining that it suppresses the nTC real views of the respondents.

Carol A. Arscott is chairman of the Howard County Republican Party and press secretary for the House Republican Caucus.

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