Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tunneling into Public Opinion

Yesterday we revisited the (now mostly dead) TSA security controversy that tore up the airwaves and blogs in November. Today we go back to October to look again at the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) tunnel project that Governor Chris Christie canceled saying the state cannot afford it. Back when he did this we were in the field with a poll so we asked what New Jerseyans thought. In general, they agreed with the governor, supporting his decision and expressing some dubiousness over the project's economic benefits.

We decided to ask about the tunnel again, but this time to do a little question order experiment. In October we asked people to think about the potential economic benefits of the tunnel BEFORE we asked them if they supported the Governor's decision. This time we split the sample into two groups. One was asked first about economic benefits (thus is directly comparable to October) while the other was asked about Christie's decision first.

This kind of thing is fun. And the results are instructive. People asked about the decision first - before being asked about economic benefits - are much less likely to oppose the Governor's decision than those asked about the decision before thinking about whether there are any economic benefits.

And we also find that those asked about the economic benefits after being asked about support for Christie's decision are much less likely to say the project is very important to the economy of the state. It's a classic example of priming (as were yesterday's TSA questions.) If we first ask about the decision, people are giving an answer to the economic question that is framed by first thinking about the governor's decision to cancel it. And if we ask about the benefits first, then their support of the governor's decision is primed specifically by potential economic benefits. More lessons in how important question wording and order really are to understanding the results of polls. You can't make sense of a poll if you don't know what was asked and in which order.

Read the release below for some more interesting results, including what happens if we frame questions around the potential costs of Gov. Christie's cancellation of the tunnel. You can get the PDF of the release with questions and tables here.

New Jerseyans Continue to Support Governor’s Decision to Cut ARC Tunnel

Strongly Support Proposal to Extend Subway Line under the Hudson

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Controversy erupted in October when Governor Chris Christie announced that he would withdraw New Jersey’s support for the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project that would link northern New Jersey to Manhattan via the Hudson River. While opponents of the Governor’s plan cited stifled economic growth, supporters heralded Christie’s decision as financially responsible in a deficit-laden state.

A new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll finds that support for Governor Christie’s decision to cancel the project has grown from 51 percent to 56 percent since October’s cancellation. At the same time, a substantial majority (74 percent) supports the recent proposal by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to extend a subway line from Manhattan into New Jersey.

“It is clear that across New Jersey, residents continue to support the governor’s decision to cancel the project,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers. “At the same time, there is recognition that increasing mass transit options into and out of New York – if that can be done at a lower cost – is a good idea.”

The poll of 906 New Jersey adults was conducted December 2-6. The full sample has a margin of error of +/- 3.3 percentage points. Random subsamples have a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points.

Thinking about economic benefits increases opposition to Christie’s decision

Supporters of the tunnel point to anticipated economic benefits, suggesting people would be more supportive of the project if they thought about its value. To test this, one group of respondents was asked whether they support Christie’s decision before being asked to consider the economic benefits of the tunnel, while the other group was asked to think about economic benefits first. The October poll asked everyone the economic benefits question first.

Asked first about Christie’s decision, 58 percent of New Jerseyans support canceling the tunnel, while 23 percent oppose it and 20 percent are unsure. But, when asked this question after a question about the economic importance of the tunnel project, opposition grows substantially, to 37 percent, while only 7 percent are unsure. Even so, 56 percent support the governor’s decision even after considering its potential economic benefits.

“Thinking about potential economic benefits does not decrease support for Christie’s cancellation of the project,” said Redlawsk. “But it does cause opposition to grow because fewer respondents are uncertain, with more taking a position – generally against Christie’s decision – if they think first about potential benefits of the tunnel.”

Overwhelming support for the extension of NYC subway line to Secaucus

In response to the cancellation of the ARC tunnel project, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed extending the #7 subway line westward under the Hudson River to Secaucus. New Jerseyans are overwhelmingly in favor of this proposal, with 74 percent supporting the plan, and 13 percent opposing it, with another 12 percent unsure. Support for this proposal holds across both political parties and independents, as well as among both commuters and non-commuters.

Most see some value to the tunnel; Asking about cancellation first makes it less valuable

When asked to evaluate the tunnel project before being asked about its cancellation, 37 percent say it is “very important” to the economic development of the Garden State, while 38 percent say it is “somewhat important”, and only 12 percent say it is “not at all important.” In October, 28 percent thought the project was very important to economic growth, while 42 said “somewhat important”, and 23 percent said “not at all important.”

“While continuing to support Christie’s decision overall, New Jerseyans have actually become more convinced that the tunnel would bring economic benefits to the state,” said Redlawsk. “A direct comparison to October with the same question order shows an increase of 9 points in how many say the project is “extremely important.”
But those asked about the tunnel’s economic value after being asked about Gov. Christie’s decision to end the project are much less likely to say the project is “very important” at only 22 percent. Forty-eight percent say it is “somewhat important”, and 22 percent say it is “not at all important”.

“This is a classic effect. Asking people to agree or disagree with the Governor’s decision first tends to make them align their opinion about the project’s value to their opinion of the decision,” said Redlawsk. “It is another warning that the way we ask questions and the order in which we ask them really matters if we want to understand public opinion.”

Support for Christie’s decision drops somewhat in light of scenarios

When asked about two scenarios surrounding the controversy around the ARC tunnel project, support for Governor Christie’s decision to cancel the project drops. The federal government has insisted that New Jersey pay back $271 million allocated for the project, but Governor Christie is suing, arguing that payback is not required. When asked about continuation of the tunnel project in light of this payback obligation, 47 percent say it should have been continued, while only 37 percent say it should have been canceled. Almost all the shift comes from Democrats and independents: 55 percent of Republicans remain in favor of cancellation while only 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Democrats think it should have been canceled, given the payback requirement.

Similar results come from asking if the project should have continued in light of the claims by supporters that cancellation would stifle job growth in the state. Given this scenario, 48 percent say it should have been continued and 40 percent support its cancellation, with 12 percent undecided. A majority (54 percent) of Republicans again continue to support cancellation, while independents narrowly favor continuation of the project in this scenario, 45 percent to 42 percent. Considering the potential effect on jobs, Democrats say the project should have been continued, 62 percent to 28 percent.

“In the abstract, support for Christie’s decision is very strong across parties,” said Redlawsk. “But when potential effects of the cancellation are described, support by Democrats drops precipitously. This suggests that while even Democrats see some validity in canceling the project, when given specific reasons to oppose this decision by Christie, they respond.”

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