Brown’s Push Poll on Pension Politics

We’ve heard a little bit about the difference between a politician testing a message and push polling this campaign season, but what exactly is a push poll? It’s when a pollster asks a question in a way that begs a certain response.

For an example, see this question on pension politics from the recent Brown University Taubman Center poll on Providence and its finances:

Cities and towns in Rhode Island and across the country are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls as a result of unfunded pension liabilities for firefighters, police officers, and other city workers. Many people say the pension spending is “out of control.” Which of the following items would you 1) support or 2) oppose, to control spending on municipal pensions?

First off the question starts with the assertion that the topic at hand is responsible for a nation-wide fiscal epidemic. One can make that argument I suppose, but the pollsters didn’t start any other question with such disclaimers. Secondly, the pollster frames the issue as being “out of control,” pure emotional terms, and then attributes it to the all-encompassing “many people” catchall – which, by the way, in journalism roughly translates to ‘I couldn’t nail this down but I’m certain a lot of people think it.’

Here are the results:

  1. Eliminate the cost of living adjustments for all city pensions: support 48.5%; oppose 35.1%; don’t know/no answer 16.4%
  2. Offer a “defined contribution” retirement plan similar to 401K for all city employees? support 67.3%; oppose 15.8%; don’t know/no answer 16.9%
  3. Raise the age at which city workers can retire: support 45.9%; oppose 43.8%; don’t know/no answer 10.3%
  4. Require city workers to work for a longer period of time before retiring: support 48.0%; oppose 37.9%; don’t know/no answer 14.1%
  5. Raise the amount of co-payment city workers pay for health insurance: support 42.4%; oppose 46.1%; don’t know/no answer 11.5%

The poll was conducted be researches at the Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and the John Hazen White Public Opinion Laboratory. I’m not insinuating the “Public Opinion Laboratory” that bears his name would push his politics, but Hazen White isn’t exactly a neutral actor in efforts to cut pensions.

Plus, according to the press release, the poll was “undertaken in conjunction with” the Center’s annual conference in October. This year’s topic, by the way, is: “Pensions in Peril: How Municipalities Are Defusing This Fiscal Time Bomb.”

I’m sure the John Hazen White Public Opinion Laboratory wouldn’t want to go into the conference on how pensions are a “time bomb” without some data to show that the people of Providence agree. And it seems like it asked a pretty baited question in order to get such a result.

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Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.

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