On a whim the other day I agreed to respond to one of those telephone surveys we’re all getting at home in the run-up to the March primaries.
It was clear the politician or political group behind the poll was Republican or Republican leaning. The pollster, for example, wanted to know whether I knew a number of our Republican elected leaders and whether I thought favorably of them. Being a Republican and a newspaper editor, I said yes every time to the first half of that question and mostly yes to the second half.
Early on, the questions were innocuous, if Republican leaning, but eventually the poll revealed its bias in favor of a particular candidate. That bias was obvious in how the pollster framed two particular questions.
The questions were about candidates in the Republican primary for the District 28 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives. The candidates are Johnston school board chairman Larry Strickland, County Commissioners chairman Tony Braswell and political newcomer Greg Dail.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the first question went very much like this: Would you be more or less inclined to vote for Larry Strickland if you knew that, as school board chairman, he hired as superintendent someone with no superintendent experience and then agreed to pay the new hire twice as much as retiring superintendent Ed Croom?
“That’s not true,” I told the pollster, who said he wasn’t responsible for writing the question, just asking it.
At best, the question was only half-true. Yes, incoming superintendent Ross Renfrew has no experience as superintendent of a school system. But he has been Croom’s deputy superintendent, which means he knows the Johnston County schools inside and out.
The other half of that question was an outright lie. The Johnston County schools will not pay Renfrew twice as much a Croom; instead, he will make exactly what Croom makes, and by the way, most of his salary will come from the state based on the state salary schedule for superintendents. It won’t come from Johnston County taxpayers.
The pollster then wanted to know if I would be more or less willing to vote for Mr. Braswell if I knew he had invested Johnston County taxpayer money wisely to help Grifols create new jobs at its plant near Clayton? I told the pollster that I thought the question should have said Novo Nordisk instead of Grifols because Novo is getting some generous incentives to double its workforce here.
But either way, you get the bias of the poll. Tony Braswell walks on water, or at least invests our tax dollars wisely, while Larry Strickland is a spendthrift who dislikes mom and apple pie.
The truth is more nuanced. Yes, the pay package for the incoming superintendent has its critics, including this newspaper, which questioned the package’s lavish perks amid an exodus of teachers from Johnston classrooms, some because of pay.
But the incentives package for Novo Nordisk has its critics too, people who argue, with some justification, that welfare ought to be for the poor, not multibillion-dollar corporations.
After the questions about Mr. Strickland and Mr. Braswell, I told the pollster that he needed to change course or I was going to hang up. I think polls should gauge, not shape, public opinion.
A few days before I responded to that poll, my wife answered a similar phone call. She was ready to respond until the pollster told her she couldn’t if anyone in her household was in the news business. She said her husband was, and the pollster thanked for her for her time.
Maybe whoever was behind that poll figured someone in the news business would immediately spot the bias in the questions. Smart move.
Personally, I tend to think Mr. Braswell would make just as effective a state representative as Mr. Strickland. But that obviously slanted poll has caused me to think twice about that.