Poll on power line acceptance manipulates the message

A Feb. 23 news release announced the results of a new poll with the headline, “80% of Michigan residents support upgrading state’s power lines to create thousands of new jobs.”

Trouble is, that isn’t exactly what the poll said.

The poll, which was commissioned by a group called The 21st Century Jobs Coalition, did show a positive attitude toward transmission upgrades among a majority of the 600 Michigan voters surveyed, but under certain conditions.

In addition, the positive responses were separated by degree: “strongly” positive and “somewhat” positive.

Public Policy Polling, a research firm based on Raleigh, N.C., conducted the poll between Feb. 13 and 15 in what one member of the firm described as a “message kind of poll.”

“We were trying to see whether economic incentives would motivate people or not,” Jim Williams, a principal with Public Policy Polling, told TransmissionHub on Feb. 28.

The results contained in the survey align with Williams’ description, but are in contrast to some other assertions.

For example, the survey shows that a total of 80% of Michigan residents said they would either “strongly favor” (41%) or “somewhat favor” (39%) transmission upgrades under the condition that the upgrades “would create thousands of new, high-paying jobs with good benefits.”

Typically, surveys use adjectives like “strongly” carefully, understanding they have a specific meaning. Adding those two figures together and characterizing that 80% as “strong support” is misleading. Only 41% “strongly favor(ed)” upgrades, while 39% “somewhat favor(ed)” them. An important difference.

Other survey findings were subject to similar spin.

Survey respondents were told that, “It is also expected that upgraded electric transmission would mean improved access to cleaner wind energy for Michigan.” Then they were asked whether that statement made them strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose improved power lines.

Under that specific scenario, 76% answered that they would either strongly favor or somewhat favor improved power lines. However, the news release said the residents “favor the enhanced power lines to allow for greater access to clean wind energy.” There’s a difference between supporting a power line because it will bring in clean energy and actively supporting the building of new or upgraded power lines to import clean energy in the future. 

Responding to the third premise, “It is also expected that upgraded electric transmission would mean cheaper electricity rates,” 86% of respondents either strongly favored or somewhat favored improved power lines. But the spin doctors said, “Nearly nine out of 10 state residents…support the upgraded electric transmission system in order to lower utility bills.”

Not entirely. The residents said they would support improving the system if it would mean cheaper rates; they didn’t say they’d support upgrading the system “in order to” lower rates. A subtle, but important, difference.

Taken as a whole, the results of the survey are positive. The reality, however, is that they reflect the attitudes of Michiganders toward power line upgrades if they do bring certain benefits; they are not, as the news release implied, supportive of transmission upgrades in the hope or expectation that they will bring additional benefits.