Push Polling in the Local Paper 

The Idaho Statesman on Oct. 31 boasted an above-the-fold story on a poll the paper commissioned that asked about the Boise streetcar proposal.

At first, we were thrilled to see the daily paper getting back to its roots and dishing out some of its Sacramento-based cash for an old-fashioned survey. But then we read the fine print.

"Data for the Statesman survey was collected from Sept. 25 to Oct. 17 by POPULUS, a nonpartisan research company in Garden City. Participants were solicited from three sources: newspaper ads, e-mail lists provided by the newspapers and a list of volunteers maintained by POPULUS," wrote Bethann Stewart in the article, headlined "Survey: A Third of Boiseans Back Streetcar."

A more accurate headline would have reflected the fact that nearly all respondents were volunteer Statesman readers, as in: "Survey: Half of Statesman Respondents Opposed to 'Trolley.'"

Though Populous owner Paul Butcher stands behind the data, this was not a random survey of Boise residents. Butcher took a self-selected group of people who responded to solicitations in the Statesman and at statesman.com, a Statesman e-mail marketing list, e-mail lists from Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the United Way and his own list of people, mainly participants in another survey he conducted for Idaho Business Review--a total of about 3,000 people--and garnered some 670 online responses to his 100-question survey.

He then compared respondents' demographics to Treasure Valley Census numbers to "balance" the data.

"For the most part, it is a reader survey," Butcher told citydesk. But if extrapolated to the city level, Butcher said his numbers are good with a 5 percent margin of error and 90 percent confidence.

"If you took those odds to Vegas, you'd come back a very, very wealthy person," Butcher said. "You don't bet against those odds if you are a politician."

The Statesman did correct the margin of error on its own poll, after rushing to publication before Tuesday's city elections. But the paper did not address the wording of the question.

The streetcar query was only one of 100 questions in the survey. It was phrased thus: "Boise should have a downtown trolley paid for by taxpayer money," and participants were asked to strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat agree or strongly agree.

That question sounds more push poll-like than unbiased newspaper survey-like. Opponents to the project have taken to calling it, inaccurately, a trolley largely because it rhymes with folly. And the streetcar is to be paid for with a mix of federal and local funding, not a citywide general property tax increase.

Butcher said that's just semantics: "That's a distinction without a difference," he said.

But Butcher posed the same loaded question when soliciting survey respondents on the Statesman editorial page last month.

"Say that an overwhelming majority of the survey participants in Boise oppose the Downtown trolley. This fact will be reported in The Statesman, and city leaders will be forced to address the issue," Butcher wrote in an op-ed, while his survey was still open. It was the only specific survey example he gave.

Even stranger, Butcher conducted the exact same survey in Idaho Falls on behalf of the Post-Register, including the Boise trolley question.

We've seen our fair share of polls, but don't just take our word on it. Republican pollster Greg Smith had some questions as well.

"If my understanding is correct, their methodology is deeply flawed," Smith said. "You cannot reach the conclusion they have using the sampling frame they did, if I understand it correctly."

The city also has some anecdotal evidence of its own to tout: 57 percent of the people who filled out comment cards at a recent open house on the streetcar favored the plan. And Mayor Dave Bieter has used another scientific survey to defend his streetcar proposal.

Boise contracts out an annual citizen survey, which polled a random sampling of 511 city residents in January. The survey firm Opinion Research Corporation found that 43 percent of Boiseans list some aspect of transportation and mobility as their highest budget priority for the city, with 21 percent mentioning public transit.

The Statesman is not done with its polling, planning more low-cost online surveys on health care, education, transportation and the economy in the next year. Butcher promises to publish the full results of these studies after the Statesman and the Post-Register get first crack at them.

But there's one more item of note in this tale of modern polling. Butcher offers his services to news outlets as, "a turn-key opportunity for newspapers to increase their advertising revenue and improve the prosperity in their local communities by providing local, credible, and exclusive content based on scientific reader surveys."

We look forward to hearing about more the findings.

The Boise City Council looked at a different sort of findings last week as well, the results of a bike safety task force study from this past summer.

The Boise City Council enthusiastically accepted the report, requesting a sit down with the Ada County Highway District and a briefing on ACHD's bike plan, indicating that it would consider implementing many of the suggestions in the report.

Michael Zuzel, with help from police and lawyers, presented the findings of the committee, including suggestions for infrastructure, enforcement and education.

As Zuzel had predicted, the three-feet-to-pass law garnered the most discussion, with Councilman Alan Shealy suggesting that writing "when possible" into the law would give drivers and excuse not to follow it.

"I'm just concerned that 'when possible' is going to completely emasculate the three-feet-to-pass," he said.

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