Activist Poll Misleads California

130328_FoodPoliceBadge picCalifornians awoke to a surprising poll this morning: The Field Poll reports that over 70 percent of the state’s voters back the harebrained proposal to place warning labels on soft drinks and two-thirds support a soda tax. This result conflicts with every other piece of evidence on soft drink taxes and regulations, which independent polls of New York City and a national sampling finding the taxes and bans don’t fly with voters. And in California, voters in two left-leaning cities rejected soda taxes by two-to-one and three-to-one margins.

Upon closer inspection, the poll looks designed to deliver its sponsor, the California Endowment, the results it hoped to find. The California Endowment is a strong financial supporter of the lead organization behind California’s anti-soda proposals, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, to the tune of $1.2 million in 2012 (the most recent year for which records are currently public).

So the poll was sponsored by a highly invested advocate for the policies polled. How might this manifest itself in the results? There are two ways. The most obvious is misleading or suggestive poll wording, and the poll question does seem slanted. The question presupposes that taxes and warning labels could reduce diabetes rates, but the evidence leans more toward the contrary. Studies of soda taxes find that they have a minimal effect on body weight (a controllable diabetes risk factor).

The second way is far more subtle. By putting the policy question after a series of related questions on a problem, a survey taker can “prime” a socially expected response to the policy question. (A British sitcom humorously sketched an unsophisticated illustration of this sort of thing.) We’ve observed Field doing this for the California Endowment to generate pro-soda tax outlier polls before; we characterized the effort as a “guilt trip followed by a bait-and-switch.”

Sure enough, Field and the Endowment appear to be at it again. Last week Field (on behalf of the Endowment) released a survey on Californians’ assessment of various “Concerns and Policy Options Related to Obesity and Diabetes.” Today’s release shows polling was conducted over the same dates (November 14-December 5 of last year, well before the soda warning proposal became public) by the same method under the same survey name.

If the questions in the first release (which emphasized how big a problem people thought obesity was) were asked of the respondents to the second release and the second release questions followed the “problem” questions preceded the “policy” questions, then the guilt trip — the psychological priming — is back. And the tax question in the second release kept the bait-and-switch promise that tax revenue would go to “nutrition and physical activity programs.” In an open debate with both sides given time to present their case, we’re pretty sure California voters will back soft drink freedom, not taxes and bans.

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