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June 9, 2014

ABC and WaPo “Poll” Misses the Mark

June 9, 2014
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Last week, ABC News and the Washington Post dutifully produced a poll that purports to examine public opinion with respect to EPA’s proposed rule on existing source standards for greenhouse gases emitted by generators. The headline speaks for itself: “A huge majority of Americans support regulating carbon from power plants. And they’re even willing to pay for it.” Since this runs counter to every single survey that I have read or focus group that I have observed over the past two years, I thought it might be worth taking a look under the hood of this conveniently timed survey. Turns out it is deficient in several respects. Let’s talk them one at a time.

First, the survey, such as it is, does not consist of 31 questions about the environment or climate change.  Rather, there are 5 questions among the 31 that specifically dealt with climate change.  Other questions probed respondents about Benghazi, Don Stirling, General Shinseki, Hilary Clinton, gay marriage, and even the World Cup. The point is that the survey does not exactly focus like a laser on climate change.

Second, the Post and ABC chose not to include data on age, gender, region, ideology, region, etc.  Consequently, we cannot tell whether the sample is representative of the larger population.  For all we know, the respondents are completely unrepresentative of the larger population. There is just no way to know.  But we can know that leaving out important demographic information is a pretty serious flaw, primarily because it prevents other people from assessing the validity of the sample.

Within the survey, 22% of self-identified conservatives indicated that they approved of the way President Obama was handling health care reform.  That alone should make people wonder about the demographics of the survey.

Third, the relevant questions about the EPA rule are not well-crafted.  One of the key questions is framed this way:

“Do you think the federal government should or should not require States to limit the amount of greenhouse gases produced within their borders in an effort to reduce global warming?”

Of course the real problem is that ultimately the requirements of the rule will not fall on the States. Rather, they will fall on the companies and individuals within the States and ultimately the ratepayers themselves will pay the bill. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the program knows that; it is surprising that the people who drafted the questionnaire do not.

Perhaps the most important of the five questions also is defectively framed.  It reads:

“What if that (the proposed rule) significantly lowered greenhouse gas emissions but raised your monthly energy expenses by $20 a month [would you still support it]?”

The key defect in the question is, of course, the word “significantly”.  Even if the rule as proposed is fully and completely adhered to, it might reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 10%.  Given that the United States now emits about 15% of the world’s total, it is possible (in the best case scenario) that the rule might reduce global greenhouse emissions by 1.5% by 2030.  I’m not sure what percentage constitutes “significantly” for most people, but I doubt 1.5% (or even 10%) counts as “significantly”.

I’m also not sure where the $20 per month comes from.  The only available number with respect to the proposed rule is from the Chamber of Commerce, whose study suggests that a better number might be $40 dollars a month.  At any rate, the survey designers should have used a gradation of numbers.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, those who made some of the survey results available for release failed to mention one of the response sets related to climate change.  Question 17 asked how important the issue of climate change would be to voters when casting their vote in this year’s Congressional elections.  Those who indicated it would be important represented about 47% of the sample.  Those who indicated it would not be important; 52% of the sample.  For purposes of comparison, the economy had an 84/15 split, the budget deficit had a 70/28 split, and health care had a 69/28 split.

The omission of material responses in a release to the press tells you that the intent was to drive and spin reporting, not inform people or share data. ABC News and the Washington Post may have attempted to help move the Obama administration’s narrative on this “all economic pain, no environmental gain” rule, but they most certainly have tarnished their credibility in the process.

IER President Thomas Pyle authored this post.


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