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Poll Positions: The Daley Skew

A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed that 70 percent of Chicago voters don't believe Mayor Richard M. Daley when he says he didn't know about "wrongdoing in city contracting and hiring," to use the Tribune's words. But in coverage of the poll, the mayor actually got off easy.

And coupled with another recent Tribune poll--this one about the mayor's plan to expand the number of surveillance cameras in the city--the seemingly eternal problems with conducting and interpreting polls were once again revealed.

How so?

The central narrative of the Tribune's poll coverage described a citizenry who overwhelmingly did not believe Daley's assertions of ignorance regarding widespread City Hall corruption, but nonetheless approved of the mayor's job performance.

With a 56 percent approval rate, the belief that Daley hasn't told the truth about City Hall corruption would seem to matter to only 14 percent of those polled.

And given that this is Chicago, that might not be so remarkable.

But let's take a closer look.

Daley may have an approval rating of 56 percent, but a Daley matchup with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. produced a dead heat--Daley was favored 41 percent to Jackson's 38 percent, falling within the poll's 4 percent margin of error.

In other words, a sizable portion of those who said they approved of Daley's job performance don't seem willing to vote for him again if given the option of voting for Jackson.

And the poll only surveyed (700) registered voters. It's quite possible that including the entire citizenry in the poll would produce even worse results for the mayor. This is relevant because it's also likely that a campaign by Jackson--or by a candidate he endorses--will register more new voters than Daley's operation.

And what of the finding that 70 percent of those asked did not believe Daley's assertions that he had no knowledge about favoritism in awarding jobs and contracts? Doesn't that mean that 70 percent of those surveyed think the mayor is a liar?

That would have been a nice word to use in the write-up, but it's a word journalists are incredibly fearful of. There doesn't seem to be any other way around it in this case, though. And if Daley had knowledge of corruption in City Hall, doesn't that make him at the very least a criminal accomplice? So do 70 percent of those surveyed think Daley is a criminal? The Tribune doesn't dare wade into this territory.

The Chicago Sun-Times had its own problems reporting on the Tribune poll.

Fran Spielman spun the poll in favor of Daley, opening her story this way: "It's not every day that a 17-year incumbent battered by corruption scandals maintains an approval rating above the pivotal 50 percent benchmark."

It certainly isn't every day, because how often is there a 17-year incumbent? So we don't really know what the "norm" for 17-year incumbents is.

Alternate lead: "It's not every day that 70 percent of the electorate think the mayor is lying about his knowledge of scandals engulfing his administration."

Is that any less valid?

Or, perhaps, more so?

Or: "A new poll shows Mayor Richard M. Daley is in a statistical dead heat with U.S. congressman Jesse Jackson Jr."

Isn't that the more salient number than the mayor's approval rating--his re-election prospects?

Put Jackson's 38 percent with the 21 undecided, and you have Daley's support at 41 percent and his non-support at 59 percent. In other words, with Jackson in the race, more people polled didn't support Daley's re-election than did.

And that "pivotal 50 percent benchmark?" I suppose it's pivotal because theoretically a 50 percent approval rating indicates re-election--though that's certainly not a given. But a benchmark? A benchmark might be his average rating, or highest rating, but it isn't necessarily a 50 percent approval rating.

Beyond that, when Daley was put in a race against either Jackson or U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, he barely reached the 50 percent "benchmark." Against Gutierrez, Daley held a 49 percent to 23 percent margin, with 28 percent undecided. Isn't it remarkable that 51 percent of those polled favored Gutierrez--who has yet to show he could be a strong candidate--or were undecided?

Finally, a poll the Tribune conducted earlier in the month found that seven of 10 Democrats "thought ending public corruption was a very important issue in deciding whom they will back for governor."

Yes, that poll was of Democrats not general voters, and it was about the governor's race not the mayor. Still, it suggests that the public's view of corruption and public officials is more complex--or more simple--than portrayed in interpreting the Daley poll.

I tend to think it shows that most polls ultimately tell us very little.

And About Those Cameras

The other troubling poll conducted by the Tribune recently was reported this way: "As Mayor Richard Daley pushes to increase video surveillance in public places across the city, a Tribune/WGN-TV poll has found that the city's security cameras have overwhelming support among Chicago residents."


This was the question: "As a means of reducing crime, the city has installed security cameras at hundreds of sites such as CTA stations, schools and city neighborhoods. Do you favor or oppose this program?"

The response: 80 percent in favor, 13 percent opposed, 7 percent no opinion.

Two problems: The question, and the respondents.

The question opens with a premise weighted in favor of security cameras. "As a means of reducing crime . . . " conveys the notion that the strategy is successful at crime-fighting. This is less than clear. Right or wrong, critics of the cameras say crime is merely displaced to less public places. (Civil libertarians also aren't thrilled with what they see as a burgeoning surveillance state.)

How different would the poll's results have been if the question question began, "As an untested attempt to fight crime . . . " or "As an experimental way to fight crime . . . " ?

In addition, the examples of placing cameras at CTA stations, schools and city neighborhoods is likely non-threatening to most respondents. What if the question spoke of placing cameras at sites in your neighborhood? On your street corner?

How many respondents favor this program because they think it is something happening somewhere else in the city?

One clue may be that those polled were 700 voters. Not residents, despite the Tribune's lead. Does that skew the poll away from respondents in the very neighborhoods likely to have the cameras?

To the Tribune's credit, the paper addressed these issues in at least a glancing way with its additonal reporting. The paper, for example, quoted a South Side resident saying, "I feel like it takes a lot of our freedom away. Then again, I feel we need some protection." (This resident was part of the poll and said she supported the cameras, but her comments indicate a more nuanced view.) And a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois was reporting to believe "the city's surveillance network has received a positive response so far because cameras are being touted as crime-fighting tools. [He] said he believes there will be a 'wait a second' reaction in the future as the video grid is expanded."

Perhaps. But even then a poll won't tell us much. What's important is whether the cameras fight crime and whether they infringe on people's privacy. What's far less important is whether people think the cameras fight crime or infringe upon their privacy. Chances are, folks will have a nuanced view that can't be captured in a poll in any case.

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Posted on February 27, 2006

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