The Art of the Push Poll

As everyone in Washington knows, public opinion polls are political instruments. While we would all like to believe that polls give us a window into the minds of voting Americans, the truth is somewhat murkier. Most operatives in this town employ two types of polls. The first type is a genuine attempt to gauge public opinion on ideas, policies, and terminology. But that type of poll is usually kept closer to the vest. The typical poll that public ultimately lays its eyes on—often through the lens of the news media—serves a different purpose. Lobbying groups use the second poll in an attempt to frame public discourse in their favor. In the swamp, we call this a push poll. 

The recent Climate Leadership Council (CLC) carbon tax poll conducted by Frank Luntz is a perfect illustration. To the uninitiated reader, Miranda Green’s coverage in The Hill would give the impression that President Trump and the Republicans in Congress who almost unanimously oppose a carbon tax are on an island, detached from their constituencies. “Luntz Global conducted the online poll of 1,000 voters on behalf of the Climate Leadership Council, which is promoting its own carbon tax and dividend plan,” Green wrote. “The survey found that GOP voters supported the plan by a 2-1 margin.”

But even a cursory skim of the language presented to respondents by Luntz Global reveals a very different story. Here’s the exact wording of the question upon which the claim of two to one Republican support for a carbon tax is based: 

“Business and environmental leaders are proposing a bipartisan climate solution that charges fossil fuel companies for their carbon emissions and gives all the money directly to the American people through a quarterly check. This new climate solution is called ‘Carbon Dividends’, because all households would receive a quarterly cash payment as part of an effort to solve climate change. Would you support or oppose this plan?”

In layman’s terms, the question asks: “Would you like fossil fuel companies to send you a big wad of cash?”

Lo and behold, CLC got the answer they were looking for. All things being equal, most people love getting something for nothing.

But as cross-partisan polling has consistently shown, when the carbon tax is put into context people like the sounds of it a whole lot less. The Climate Leadership Council knows this—and almost certainly has their own private polling as confirmation—which is why they go to such great lengths to hide the ball with their claims that “companies” will bear the burden of the tax (despite the obvious implication for prices), that the money will be sent “directly” to the American people (despite the need for a new bureaucracy to administer the scheme), and that it’s a “dividend” (despite having no relationship to investment or wealth creation).

Two key factors tend to pull the legs out from the carbon tax’s popularity when it’s put into context.

The first is prioritization. Climate change simply isn’t something most people are losing sleep over. MWR Strategies, our trusted polling partner, has never had more than 4 percent of voters identify the environment as one of their top two issues. And climate change is only a portion of that already miniscule sliver. If you want more neutral verification, look to Gallup, which asked more than 1000 adults in each of six different surveys between January and July of 2018 to identify their most important issue. Based on the reported results, not a single respondent out of more than 6,000 respondents said climate change was their top concern.

The second factor is what we call willingness to pay. As a memo on the carbon tax from MWR Strategies explains, “when people are aware that this is a tax, one that they will pay at the pump, in the electricity bills, and for home heating, their enthusiasm vanishes.”

When asked questions such as “how much are you willing to pay each year to address global warming?” and “how much are you willing to pay to reduce the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels?” voters don’t look nearly as keen on climate change action as the CLC push poll wants us to think. Median responses to these questions have yielded a range from $2 to $50 annually. And over 40 percent of likely voters consistently respond that they are willing to pay exactly $0.

It should be clear by this point, but if the American people had an appetite for a carbon tax, the Climate Leadership Council wouldn’t need to jump through its contrived linguistic hoops to show it.

Speak Your Mind


Anonymous says:
Your email has been received. Thank you for signing up.