Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Philosophical vs Substantive Polling Questions

There’s often a disconnect between what public opinion survey results suggest and the public’s true position on an issue. To understand why survey results sometime imply one outcome and reality reveals another, the consumers of public opinion data need to learn the difference and identify philosophical position and substantive survey questions.

Philosophical survey questions, as philosophical questions in general, are not designed to arrive at a definitive answer about a specific issue. While most people could identify fundamental philosophical questions (What is the meaning of life? What is good/evil? What is beauty?), survey questions designed to evaluate philosophical positions are less easily distinguished.

Philosophical survey questions often ask respondents to evaluate the priority they place on various concepts or ideas, or to indicate whether they support or oppose a plan or idea in general terms. An example of philosophical position survey question may include a priority question about whether respondents feel adding air conditioning to existing schools without air condition is a high, medium, low, or not a priority. Another example could be when respondents are asked if they agree or disagree with the statement that the government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans. These questions do not discuss a specific plan, but rather probe how respondents generally feel about these topics.

Understanding the philosophical position of the voters is critical for developing a campaign’s strategy. If it is known, following our example, that voters are generally or highly supportive of adding air conditioning to schools where it currently does not exist, then the campaign for adding air conditioning has a starting point from where to understand their position. Supporters of adding air conditioning know that they are operating in an ‘environment’ that is ‘friendly’ to their cause. Supporters can focus their campaign on issues that will retain support, instead of trying to shift opinions in favor of adding air conditioning.

Philosophical opinions are often the poll results to which campaigns try to direct the public’s attention. They are the results about which campaigns generally want their issue debated, they focus on the big idea. Substantive questions, however, often reveal a schism in respondent opinion, and are less likely to be reported or the focus of a media release. Substantive questions, following our example, would ask survey responds if they supported or opposed adding air conditioning to schools in their district where it currently does not exist if they knew the proposal would require a bond costing thirteen million dollars. A substantive question injects the facts missing from a philosophical question and allows voters to make a more informed decision about their position on the issue, concept, or idea.

There are varying degrees of substantive questions. Respondents could be asking their opinions about an issue with only being presented the basic facts (Adding X number of air conditioners at Y cost). This type of question is often called an ‘initial ask’ or an ‘uninformed ask.’ It is generally asked in neutral language and, if the issue is about something likely to appear on a ballot, worded as closely as to the questions language on the ballot as possible. This sort of question gives a clear indication if the philosophical opinions of the respondents will differ with the reality.

Substantive questions may also be included to try to simulate the dynamics of an engaged debate about an issue (along with additional message testing techniques). Questions like these are typically called ‘informed asks.’ In an informed ask, balanced messages in support and opposition of an issue are cited after a statement of facts about the issue (Adding X number of air conditioners at Y cost, supporters say… opponents say…). Respondents are then asked, based on the information presented in the question, if they support or oppose the issue.

Through examining the differences between philosophical opinions and what respondents indicate through substantive questions is where strategy is developed. Campaigns need to know where the voters stand philosophically on their issue, idea, or concept and where support (or opposition) is lost (or gained) once additional information and messages are presented about the topic. Polling offers campaigns the ability to target demographic and attitudinal groups, discover where and among which respondents changes in opinions occur, and what needs to be done to keep or convert supporters to their cause.

To genuinely understand public opinion on an issue, more than the philosophical data needs to be presented. We have observed the philosophical fallacy in the current deluge of polling results presented in the media about healthcare reform. While the polls show wide appeal for change and reforming the system, specific plans, substantive questions, show a less consensus about how to fix the system. Consumers of healthcare survey data should be careful to seek out the results for substantive questions and not be clouded by reports based on the philosophical support of a plan.