Archive for the ‘Polling’ Category

Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.


The Great Divide

Idaho’s Three Political Parties

According to a new statewide survey of Idaho voters, the state now effectively has three political factions – very economically and socially conservative folks, economically conservative but less socially doctrinaire voters and a shrinking group of Democrats.

The three factions – think of them as almost three different political parties – has served to fracture the Idaho political landscape in a way that may make it even more difficult in the foreseeable future for so called moderates, and especially Democrats, to win major political office.

Right now 38% of Idahoans self-identify as Republican, another 32.5% call themselves Independents, who are affiliated with no party, and just over 24% say they are Democrats.

The new research was undertaken by my firm, Gallatin Public Affairs, in cooperation with respected national pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The Business Review will have a nice package on what the research says about public attitudes regarding the Idaho economy in its next edition and I’ll be devoting some space here over the next few days to a deeper dive into the numbers on a variety of issues.

We are fortunate to have been able to deploy the talents and insights of Greg Strimple on this project. As we say, Greg is kind of a big deal; an outstanding researcher and strategist and a relatively new resident of Idaho. Before relocating his family to Boise a year ago, Greg lived and worked on the east coast and provided first-rate public opinion research for major national clients and major Republican political campaigns. Greg did polling and strategy work for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and more recently helped elect a Republican governor in New Jersey and a U.S. Senator in Illinois. Greg’s polling firm – GS Strategy Group – is one of Idaho’s newest small businesses.

Greg and his family, like so many others, chose to live in Idaho because of our enviable lifestyle and fortunately the tools of the modern workplace allow him to live where he wants and still serve his national and regional clients.

Strimple’s research on the Idaho political divide finds, not surprisingly, that a strong plurality of Idahoans – 47.5% – consider themselves very or somewhat conservative. Another 29% describe themselves as moderates, while about 16% call themselves liberal.

Republicans meanwhile, who during the recent legislative session took action to limit their nominating primaries to real, card-carrying members of the party, are likely to continue to battle in a narrow range between the very conservative Republicans, deeply invested in social issues, and those Republicans who may be less consistently doctrinaire and line-up more consistently with what the Pew Center’s new survey calls “Main Street Republicans.” These voters tend to be low tax advocates and suspecious of government, but also concerned about education and the future of the economy.

(The new Pew research makes at least one point that I think tracks directly with our recent Idaho research. The far ends of the political spectrum – the far right and far left – are more extreme than ever, but the Independents are hardly a bunch of moderate, middle-of-the-roaders. Independents in Idaho and nationally amount to a swirling mass of diversity. The Independents are all over the political map – libertarian, social moderates and many disaffected – maybe even disillusioned – by both established parties.)

Idaho’s Republican fault lines, and we saw some of this in the recent legislative session, will likely focus on the clear divide between very socially conservative Republicans who are content, even happy, to limit the party to those who see the world as they do and what I’ll call “the bigger tent” GOP. To date, the first group is winning most of the important battles and clearly this is the fundamental base of the Idaho GOP.

Democrats meanwhile are, there is no nice way to say it, marginalized. They have little traction now outside of a handful of state legislative districts and their prospects in the immediate future, barring a Republican meltdown and a spectacularly attractive candidate, seem genuinely bleak.

Strimple’s Idaho analysis also shows a deep and potentially paralyzing divide that breaks down along demographic more than partisan lines. Generally speaking older, more rural, less well educated, less wealthy Idahoans have a very different view of the state’s economic future than do younger, more educated, better off voters.

The first group tends to look forward and see the Idaho that we have historically known with traditional jobs in construction, manufacturing and natural resources. This group thinks agriculture will be the dominate industry over the next decade. The second group looks ahead and sees an Idaho economy built on more technology, more innovation and more trade.

Our research project also included a survey of Idaho Business Review subscribers, a cross section of small and large business leaders. These business leaders tend to be somewhat divided, as well, concerning the future of the Idaho economy, but they are also more likely to think that industries dependent on technology, like energy and health care, will play an ever more important role in our future.

The political significance of this research, seems to me, turns on the question of who in the next generation of Idaho political leadership finds a way to connect with voters as a responsible fiscal conservative who also has a vision for the future of the Idaho economy.

Idaho voters are pretty pessimistic right now about any real improvement in the economy in the near term. A candidate who can give voters a sense of optimism about the state’s economic future, while not offending their generally small government, low tax notions, will probably have a bright future.


Survey Says

Don’t Know Much About…Us

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.

I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.

Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.

The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?

Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.

I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.

Now…the News

chartPew Survey: Internet Grows As News Source

The new Pew Research Center report dealing with where Americans turn for their daily news fix shows, not surprisingly, that the Internet’s impact is growing and newspapers are declining. Television is also in decline, while radio is essentially flat.

Again, no big surprise, young people, in vast numbers, are surfing the net for news, while – as a former TV reporter I love this headline – TV news still dominates among what Pew calls “the less educated.” People in the West are more likely than any other part of the country to turn to the Internet for news, but I’m guessing those numbers are skewed by “the left coast” effect of California, Oregon and Washington. Still the trends in where we seek out news are dramatic and show no signs of changing.

Interesting to me, cable news and the traditional broadcast networks are both in steady decline as news sources, while local television news seems to be holding its own as a source of information. Older folks, again no big surprise, turn to television and much less to the Internet.

What the survey doesn’t answer is where on the Internet Americans are turning for information. Are they using the major newspaper and broadcast websites? Or are Internet news consumers turning to specialized sites that cover politics, business, energy or the environment? Or are they looking to sites like the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, websites that aggregate news with a decided slant on what is featured and how the information is packaged? Or, as I suspect, based on the trend of increasing partisanship and a “point of view” approach on cable television, are Internet consumers seeking out information that already reinforces their political or social views?

This much is beyond debate it seems to me: there is no longer any comprehensive place where Americans can turn for a shared sense of what is happening in American politics and culture. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley once could gather us around the national hearth and we could share a national experience – men landing on the moon – or a national tragedy – the Kennedy assassination. No more.

Pew also offers some regular analysis of what type of information Internet consumers seek. In the week between Christmas and the New Year – a pretty quiet news cycle – the top story was the seriously bad weather on the east coast.

I’ve long subscribed to the “more is better” theory about news and information. More sources, more points of view and more delivery systems should make us smarter, more informed and better and more engaged citizens. I hope that instinct is true, but doubt it is. To make it true we must have not just consumers of news and information, but discerning, skeptical and critically thinking consumers.

Other recent Pew research suggests that Americans have a 30,000 foot view of the issues and challenges facing the country. We know a few basic facts, but very few details. Americans aren’t big on nuance. We know, for example, that the GOP made big gains in Congress, but not what those new members really intend to do, or even that the Republicans won control of the House. We know that BP ran the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, but no idea about who serves as the British Prime Minister. We know the budget deficit is a big problem, but have no idea where all that money is being spent. And, John Boehner. Whose he?

There is clearly a tremendous amount of information out there on the Internet, cable and broadcast television, even in shrinking newspapers, but the jury is out as to whether all that information, in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, is making us any smarter or better able to understand and engage the world. That, in a modern democracy, seems to me to be a real problem.

Obama’s Comeback

Obama smilesNever So High, Nor So Low

It was as predictable as a Christmas sale. Make way for the Obama Comeback stories.

Immediately after the mid-term “shellacking” of Barack Obama and his party, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker breathlessly and instantly analyzed the election under the headline – “In Republican Victories, Tide Turns, Starkly.” The President, Baker analyzed, “must find a way to recalibrate with nothing less than his presidency on the line.”

Wow. What a difference seven weeks makes.

A lead story at the Politico website carries the headline: “Obama Rebounding.” Reporter Jennifer Epstein expands a tiny uptick in Obama’s poll standings – his approval/disapproval now stands evenly split at 48-48 in the latest CNN survey – into the insight that more Americans support the President’s policies than any time since mid-2009.

Say what? What happened to the guy who couldn’t find his groove? What became of the fatally wounded re-election bid? In that November 3 Times piece, former House Republican leader Dick Armey, a voice of the Tea Party, flatly predicted that Obama has “already lost his re-election.”

What’s going on here is that politics sometimes resembles another game – baseball. Every day is a new game and, while every team looks unbeatable through a winning streak and impossible in a slump, seldom are the players ever as good or bad as they appear. The ups get exaggerated and so do the downs.

The other phenomenon in plain view is the absolute fascination of the national media with the “comeback narrative.” The so called “media elite” from the Times to Time, from Fox News to Politico can’t operate without a simple, concise narrative. Every storyline needs, well, a story and there is no better political story than “the comeback.” Need more proof? USA Today supplies it with a headline: “Obama Sets Up As Comeback Kid.”

Seven weeks is a lifetime in politics, particularly in a political environment as volatile as ours; an environment influenced heavily, it must be noted, by relentless and often misleading coverage of the latest poll numbers. Here’s a thought. Rather than sitting around the Beltway cracker barrel, how about some political reporters go out into the country and talk to voters? They just might learn something.

A few things are obvious, even if they don’t fit neatly into the political narrative of the moment. The President has had a good lame duck session, he did recalibrate his stand on extending the Bush tax cuts and, as yet, the country sees no serious challenger to him in 2012. Meanwhile, by some accounts, Obama is quietly remaking his White House staff for the run up to his re-election and positioning himself as a reasonable, mid-ground alternative to the current faces of the GOP – Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Also obvious, Obama is a good politician who displays the ability to grow in office. By the same token, he is not as good at the political game as his 2008 election made him look, but he is also not as bad as the recent mid-terms made him look.

For Obama, like all politicians, the highs are always lower than they seem and the lows are always higher.

In truth, as Michael Cooper astutely pointed out in the Times in the wake of the mid-terms, a good deal of political “analysis” is not just spin, it is mythology.

But, political time and myth will march on and the national media will soon need to invent new narratives. In a few weeks, Newt and Mitt, Sarah and Haley will be showing up in places like Manchester and Waterloo and we can read and contemplate the unfolding of the endless presidential campaign. It will, no doubt, be the most important election in our lifetimes. You heard it here first.

All this reminds me – and reminded Michael Cooper after the mid-terms – of the late Polish philosopher and political thinker, Leszek Kolakowski. Once a hard-headed Stalinist, Kolakowski came to see the Communism of his youth as a fraud and he eventually became a leading intellectual of the Solidarity movement in his native land. He won a MacArthur genius award and his work was celebrated by, among others, the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski promulgated what he called the “Law of Infinite Cornucopia,” which holds that for any doctrine one chooses to embrace there is never a shortage of arguments to support that view.

So, welcome to the remarkable Obama comeback or, if you prefer, wait for “proof” that it never happened.

Whad’Ya Know

762-frontNot Much Apparently

The Pew Research Center is out with a new quiz probing just what we know about current issues and politics. Most folks who have taken the quiz – the questions range who the Senate Majority Leader is to which country holds most of the debt that the United States has piled up – could answer less than half of the questions correctly.

Take the quick, 12 question quiz and see how you stack up.

Frankly, if you read a daily newspaper, listen to NPR, watch CNN, FOX of MSNBC, or check a major newspaper blog once in a while you should ace the quiz. However, based upon Pew’s findings, most folks are living in an basic information black hole.

Fewer than half knew that U.S. troops have sustained more causalities in Afghanistan over the last year than in Iraq. Only 26% knew that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster. Interestingly, the question most frequently answered correctly – 59% of the time – was the nation that holds the most U.S. debt. (Hint – it’s not Belgium.)

I’ve long been on my soapbox with concern that education in basic history and what we used to call civics – how the government works, that we have three branches, that Senators operate under different rules that Congressman, etc. – has nearly gone the way of the dodo.

This Pew quiz does not prompt me to revise that opinion. With more and more sources of news and information, Americans seem less and less informed about the “facts” underlying what they tell pollsters are their clear concerns about the direction of the country.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1789: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

By contrast, when the people don’t even know the basics about how their government operates and who makes the decisions, a strong, enduring democracy is, well, not necessarily strong or enduring.