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Masters of Spin
Rightwing Manipulation of the Wisconsin Revolt
by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

Spin has always been a major problem when it comes to interpreting public opinion.  Manipulation of opinion surveys is easy enough for those seeking to muddy the waters of political debate regarding the current war on unions.  A recent survey from the reactionary Rasmussen polling group – celebrated throughout the right-wing press – is a case in point.  The survey paints a picture of the American public as firmly in favor of gutting public union protections in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  Rasmussen’s findings should come as no surprise to those familiar with the firm.  The organization’s president, Scott Rasmussen, is a regular contributor to Fox News, is a political ally of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and has built a career promoting the false notion that most Americans are firmly in the libertarian-right political camp.  This last “finding” has been consistently debunked by scholars who study public opinion, as I describe below.

The effective measurement of public opinion on the Wisconsin rebellion against Governor Scott Walker’s attack on Wisconsin unions is illuminated by a close examination of the polls covering the subject.  First is the Rasmussen poll, which is heavily biased in its many leading questions and in its failure to provide an adequate political context for the rebellion in question.  Rasmussen included a number of questions asked of respondents, prior to asking about their opinions of the situation in Wisconsin. Questions asked included the following (asked in the sequence provided below):

“Does the average public employee in your state earn more than the average private sector worker in your state, less than the average private sector worker in your state or do they earn about the same amount?”
“Should teachers, firemen and policemen be allowed to go on strike?” “In the dispute between the governor and the union workers, do you agree more with the [Wisconsin] governor [Scott Walker] or the union or teachers and other state employees?”

Rasmussen finds that 48 percent of respondents claim to support Governor Walker, founds after asking the third question above, compared to just 38 percent who support the unions.  These figures have been widely disseminated by right-wing television and radio pundits in order to create the notion that the public supports austerity budget cuts and attacks on unions’ collective bargaining rights.

Many problems are immediately observable with this narrative.  The Rasmussen survey establishes a number of false/questionable premises with regard to the situation in Wisconsin.  First, it subtly inserts within respondents’ minds the question of whether public workers are overpaid compared to private sector workers (see question 1).  This is a classic tactic of right-wing pundits, who repeatedly remind their listeners/viewers of the “greedy” nature of union workers, and their position of relative privilege (in terms of pay) when compared to private sector workers (for the record, numerous studies show that public sector workers actually earn less than private sector workers, after controlling for education levels).  Second, the Rasmussen survey premises its study by asking respondents if “teachers, firemen, and policemen” should “be allowed to go on strike.”  This scenario is highly problematic with regard to the events in Wisconsin, since there has been no strike officially declared by Wisconsin police, teachers, or firefighters.  In reality, the vast majority of Wisconsin public sector workers showed up for work over the last week, while a minority appeared in the state capitol of Madison to protest (a large number of firefighters and police did show up, however, to show their solidarity with other public sector workers).  Those I spoke with in Wisconsin over the holiday weekend did indicate that public sector workers in Wisconsin were considering a strike as an act of last resort if the state actually passes a bill stripping workers of collective bargaining rights, although this plan has not yet been implemented. 

Other problems also arise in the Rasmussen poll.  Rasmussen typically only contacts “likely voters,” rather than all Americans, meaning that its samples are restricted to a select, relatively elite group (voters) while ignoring those typically unrepresented in the political system (non-voters).  Creating an artificial distinction between the opinions of “worthy” citizens (voters) and “unworthy” ones (non-voters) is unacceptable in a political system asserting that all people are created equal and deserving of an equal say in the policymaking arena.  Finally, and by far most importantly, Rasmussen’s poll is fundamentally flawed in that it failed to provide respondents with the full political context for the conflict in question in Wisconsin.  The survey generically informed respondents of “the Wisconsin governor’s effort to limit collective bargaining rights for most state employees."  However, the survey doesn’t bother to inform respondents about what specifically “collective bargaining” entails.  This failure should not be overlooked in light of the fact that the vast majority of Americans do not belong to a union – hence they do not enjoy direct knowledge of what rights are specifically included under collective bargaining.

Examining the Rasmussen-right-wing narrative alongside other recent surveys places the former’s flaws into better context.  One example is a survey done by WeAskAmerica, a research arm of the pro-Republican Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.  The group’s recent survey of those in Wisconsin simply asks respondents: “As you may know, Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a plan to limit the pay of government workers and teachers, increase their share of the cost of benefits, and strip some public-employ unions of much of their power.  We’d like to know if you approve or disapprove of Governor Walker’s plan.”  This survey question is far more precise with regard to the specifics of Walker’s policy reform when compared to the Rasmussen question.  Asking a policy-specific question, WeAskAmerica finds, in contrast to Rasmussen, that 52 percent of those surveyed disapprove of Walker’s plan, compared to 43 percent who do support it.  Nearly identical results were found by the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR) research firm (which conducted a survey for the AFL-CIO), reporting that 52 percent of Wisconsin residents supported and 42 percent opposed Walker’s actions after being asked the following question:

“As you may know, Governor Scott Walker recently announced a plan to limit most public employees’ ability to negotiate their wages and benefits. The plan cuts pension and health care benefits for current public workers, and restricts new wage increases unless approved by a voter referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year, with wages frozen until a new contract is settled. In addition, Walker’s plan also changes rules to require collective bargaining units to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union, stops employers from collecting union dues, and allows members of collective bargaining units to avoid paying dues. Law enforcement, fire employees and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from the changes.”

GQR is also rather straightforward in its other survey questions.  The group prompts readers by explaining: “I’m going to read you a list of groups and people, for each one, please tell me if you agree or disagree with the position they are taking in the current situation at the [Wisconsin] state capitol.  For each one, tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree?”  Asking about various actors involved, GQR finds the following levels of support: 67 percent for “public employees,” 62 percent for “protesters at the state capitol,” 59 percent for “unions,” 56 percent for “Dems in the legislature” [who are opposing Walker’s plan], 48 percent for “Reps. In the legislature [who support Walker], and just 43 percent for Scott Walker.  This again is a dramatic contrast when compared to Rasmussen’s results.

One might point out that the WeAskAmerica and GQR polls are not strictly comparable to the Rasmussen poll, since the first two survey Americans overall and the other surveys Wisconsin residents.  This criticism is valid at first glance, but neglects the reality that national surveys also find strong opposition to government attacks on unions.  A poll this week from USA Today, for example, finds that 61 percent of all Americans surveyed oppose laws that remove collective bargaining rights for public sector union workers, compared to just 33 percent who support attacks on collective bargaining.  The same survey finds that 53 percent of Americans oppose reducing budget deficits through the cutting of pay and benefits for state workers.  Looking again at the questions at hand, one can see that the political context in question (as related to Wisconsin) is far better explained in the USA Today poll, when compared to the Rasmussen poll. 

Questions leading up to USA Today’s results read as follows:

“As you may know, many U.S. state governments are facing large budget deficits this year.  Please say whether you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose each of the following ways state officials could reduce their budget deficits.  How about reducing pay or benefits the state provides for government workers?”

“As you may know, one way the legislature in Wisconsin is seeking to reduce its budget deficit is by passing a bill that would take away some of the collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers’ union.  Would you favor or oppose such a bill in your state?”

No one with any real expertise in the study of public opinion should be surprised by my contention that the American public is generally progressive on issues related to social welfare and worker protections – at least when polled through specific policy questions.  Well respected scholars in political science regularly have uncovered such patterns in their analyses of public opinion.1  Similarly, no one who attended the Madison rally last weekend should be surprised that there is widespread opposition in Wisconsin to Walker’s attack on public sector workers. 

Those I spoke with at the rally regularly stated that there is strong resistance to Walker’s initiative in their own communities, and consistently reinforced the point that the rebellion was widespread, with an estimated half of those attending not even belonging to public sector unions.

Sadly, many Americans (particularly those consuming right wing media) will be left with a grossly distorted opinion of public opinion with regard to the war against unions.  Such ignorance is typical in a right-wing media system that only views public opinion polls as valuable when they are manipulated to serve reactionary purposes.  As progressives, it is our responsibility to correct these distortions, and remind our friends and family of the need to evaluate information from partisan media (such as Fox and right wing radio) with a healthy degree of skepticism. The reality remains that the American public is strongly opposed to the recent wave of attacks on unions, as seen in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere.  This opposition will become increasingly important in the public rebellions emerging in these states, and will be needed if we are to push for policy victories for American workers.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the co-author (with Paul Street) of the forthcoming “Crashing the Tea Party” (Paradigm Publishers) due out in May 2011.  He is also the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu

1     See: Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacob’s seminal The Rational Public and Class War?, and Page’s The Foreign Policy Disconnect.  Also see Martin Gilen’s Why Americans Hate Welfare and Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin’s American Public Opinion for further validation.