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The Democratic Leadership Doesn’t Understand the Power of Language and Framing, What Two Polls Show

Posted on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 at 12:33 pm by George Lakoff

This article originally appeared on Buzzflash.

The Poll Democrats Need to Know About 

Framing, Value-Shifting, the California Budget Crisis, and Why Democrats So Often Act Like Republicans

This is a case study of how inadequate polling can lead Democrats to accept and promote a radical Republican view of reality. This paper compares two polls, one excellent and revealing, the other inadequate, misleading, and counterproductive. The issues raised are framing and value-shifting (where voters shift, depending on the wording of questions, between two contradictory political world-views they really hold, but about different issues). It also discusses how polls can reveal the difference between what words are commonly assumed to mean, versus what they really mean to voters — and how polls can test this. 

It is a truism that poll results can depend on framing. For example, the NY Times reported last month on a NYT/CBS Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell poll on whether “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians” should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. That’s a 36 percent framing shift on the same literal issue, but not surprising since the words evoked very different frames, one about sex and the other about rights.  Newsworthy for the NY Times, but hardly earthshaking.

But a recent poll by David Binder, perhaps the premier California pollster, showed a framing shift of deep import for Democrats — a shift of 69 percent on the same issue, depending on the framing. It was noteworthy not just because of the size of the framing shift on the main question, but because the shift was systematic. Roughly, around 18 percent of voters showed that their values are not fixed. They think BOTH like liberals and conservatives — depending on how they understand the issue. With a liberal value-framing, they give liberal answers; with a conservative value-framing, they give conservative answers. What is most striking is that conservatively framed poll questions are all too often written by Democrats thinking they are neutral. The result is a Democratic move to the right for what are thought to be “pragmatic” reasons, but which are actually self-defeating.

Here is the background.

California is the only state with a legislature run by minority rule. Because it takes a 2/3 vote of both houses to either pass a budget or raise revenue via taxation, 33.4 percent of either house can block the entire legislative process until it gets what it wants. At present 63 percent of both houses are Democrats and 37 percent are far-right Republicans who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise revenue and to shrink government till it can be drowned in a bathtub. They run the legislature by saying no. This has led to gridlock, huge deficits from lack of revenue, and cuts so massive as to threaten the viability of the state.

Unfortunately, most Californians are unaware of the cause of the crisis, blaming “the legislature,” when the cause is only 37 percent of  “the legislature,” the 37 percent that runs the legislature under minority rule.

I realized last year that the budget crisis was really a democracy crisis, and that a ballot initiative that could be passed by only a majority could eliminate the 2/3 rules, replacing minority rule by majority rule. The idea was to bring democracy to California. Only two words are needed to be changed in the state Constitution, with “two-thirds” becoming “a majority” in two paragraphs, one on the budget and the other on revenue. The changes could be described in a 14-word, single-sentence initiative that went to the heart of the matter — democracy. It is called The California Democracy Act:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

One would think voters would like the idea of democracy — and a ballot initiative they could actually understand. And they do. David Binder of DBR Research recently conducted a poll showing that likely voters support it by a 73-to-22 percent margin — a difference of 51 percent!

There were 800 randomly selected likely voters, with a ±3.5 percent margin of error — and 53 questions. In short, it was a thorough and responsible poll.

In California, the Attorney General gets to write the “title and summary” — the description of the initiative that actually appears on the ballot. At present, the Attorney General is Jerry Brown, who is running for Governor. He had announced that he was against getting rid of the 2/3 rule for taxes, though in favor of a majority for budget alone. The result would make Democrats responsible for the budget, but with no extra money to put in it, they would be presiding over the further decline of the state.

When the Democracy Act came across Brown’s desk, he personally penned the following title and summary:

Changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the budget, and to raise taxes from two-thirds to a simple majority. Unknown fiscal impact from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases.  In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and / or state tax revenues could increase.  Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future legislatures.

Instead of the original initiative text, Brown’s wording would appear on the ballot if it qualified, and would have to appear on all petitions. This wording uses the word “taxes” three times paired with the verbs “raise” and “increase,” as well as the conservative phrase for vilifying liberals “spending and tax increases.” 

When DBR Research polled voters on both the original initiative text and the Brown title and summary, the results came out as follows:

                                   Support            Oppose      Difference

Original initiative text          73%                  22%               +51%

Brown title and summary              38%                  56%       -18% 

The Brown wording shifted the result by 69 percent! The largest shift Binder had ever seen.

But this was not mere wording. I had expected a large shift, but the neural theory behind my cognitive linguistics research had made a deeper prediction: Many voters have both conservative and liberal value-systems in their brain circuitry, linking each value-system to different issues. Each value-system, when activated, shuts down the other, and each can be activated by language. The prediction was that this shift was systematic, tied to value-based ideas — not just a matter of one wording or another.

A second prediction was made from long experience. After a strong attack from the right, a liberal poll advantage on an initiative can be expected to drop by around 10 percent.

Brilliantly, the DBR poll tested both for the systematic effect and simulated the effect of a right wing attack. The systematic effect was tested by a battery of pro-arguments followed by a battery of con-arguments, each in distinct wording. The pro-arguments were given first, followed by the battery of con-arguments. Right after the con arguments, the original wording and the attorney general’s title and summary were tested again.

                                   Support            Oppose      Difference

Original initiative text          62 %                  34 %             +28 %

Brown title and summary    43 %                  52 %              -9 %

                                                       37 % shift

As predicted, in the face of con-arguments, the 73 – 33 percent advantage for the original initiative dropped to a 62 – 34 percent advantage, a loss of 11 points, but still a 28-point advantage. The attorney general’s wording also suffered a loss after the pro-arguments, going from 38-to-56 percent before the arguments to 43-to-52 percent after the arguments, a 9 percent drop for the attorney general’s language, about as expected. The total shift after the arguments, from +28 to -9 is 37 percent.

The current explanation of the shift is as follows. There are two political value-systems that voters have, call them Pro and Con. (You might think them as Progressive and Conservative, though no overall views are tested in the poll.) About 40-to-45 percent have a consistently Pro-worldview. About 35-to-40 percent have a consistently Con worldview.  About 18 percent have BOTH worldviews, and the understanding provided by language can trigger one or the other, resulting in a shift.

Now things get really interesting. The DBR poll found a way to test this explanation.  The respondents to the poll were asked if they found the pro- and con-arguments convincing or unconvincing. On the battery of pro-arguments, an average of 57 percent found the pro-arguments convincing and 38 percent found them unconvincing.

Read the whole article on Buzzflash.

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