How to Push Phony Poll Numbers in the Public Square

A Vanderbilt University poll has shown that regardless of political affiliation, Tennesseeans strongly support returning Sudafed and other cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine (PSE) to prescription-only status. This policy has been proven in other states to virtually eliminate meth labs, so it’s unsurprising that Tennesseeans would endorse it after years of suffering from the fires, explosions, burns, poisonings, destroyed property and lost tax dollars that the labs cause. Yet State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey was shocked by the poll’s result. To understand why, one has to appreciate how a deep-pocketed special interest group can finance polls that create a false impression about what voters really want.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) represents the manufacturers of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medications that are easily converted to meth. Unlike the pharmaceutical companies that produce the same medications in extraction-resistant formulations, the manufacturers represented by CHPA take in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from meth cooks. As documented by journalist Jonah Engle, CHPA’s desire to protect this enormous revenue stream has led it to spend unprecedented amounts of money lobbying state legislatures to not return PSE-containing medications to prescription-only status.

But CHPA doesn’t just pursue its interests through lobbying. It also releases polls that overstate the public’s agreement with CHPA’s corporate clients. That’s why Speaker Ramsey was “amazed” to find that Democrats, Independents and Republicans (including 64% of Tea Party Republicans) in his state overwhelmingly support returning PSE-containing cold medications to prescription only status. Ramsey, like many other people, had been misled by a press release about a CHPA-sponsored poll claiming that 56% of Tennesseans were opposed to the policy.

CHPA released similar polls in Oregon and Mississippi prior to those states returning PSE-containing cold medications to prescription-only status. In both cases, the policy has been popular with voters and no legislator has been voted out of office for supporting it. The Tennessee poll and others like it are thus a continuation of a well-established corporate strategy of spreading misinformation about public preferences.

Many people assume that wealthy interest groups generate phony poll results by hiring completely dishonest pollsters. That does sometimes happen, but it isn’t necessary for the production of a deceptive polling result. Poll design involves many subjective decisions about sampling, wording of questions, and order of questions, all of which can change the results. When a special interest group is paying the bills, it has significant power over a poll’s results because it gets to tell the pollster how the poll’s central question should be framed. For example, if a chemical company is facing restrictions on its abilities to dump toxic waste into the water supply, it can commission a pollster to “find out whether the public favors job-destroying constraints on responsible businesses” and release the likely results as “proof” that the public would cheer chemical dumping.

Also, interest groups like CHPA have no legal requirement to release a poll they have conducted. They can legally commission a half dozen polls with different polling methods and release only the one that gives the most favorable result. Neither must they reveal set-up questions and descriptive text that skew answers on the central question of interest (here is a humorous demonstration of how this is done). Neither are they under any obligation to release the data and full list of questions to outside scrutiny. Rather they can legally put only their preferred subset of polling details and results in a press release and maintain that the rest are proprietary information.

That’s how in a state like Tennessee where almost 70% of the public support a policy, a well-heeled interest group can release a poll allegedly proving that 56% of that same public oppose it. Meanwhile, in another state being decimated by meth labs — West Virginia — CHPA is claiming 56% support of its views (yes, there’s that number again) based on the poll it paid for. Given the Tennessee experience, no reasonable person should believe that poll’s result truly reflects the will of West Virginia voters.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.