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Offshore Drilling: Quinnipiac Poll Shows Extent to Which Question Wording Influences Outcomes

Via Right Now, Quinnipiac has released new polling on offshore drilling showing, among other things, a nine percent drop in the percentage of Americans who support offshore drilling. Here are some of the results of interest:

Democrats, liberals, minorities and young Americans continue to approve the President’s response to the disaster.

While the level of support for offshore drilling in Quinnipiac’s poll experienced a 9% decrease since August 2008, many other polls have shown a greater decline. This likely has something to do with how Quinnipiac framed the offshore drilling question: “To help solve the energy crisis and make America less dependent on foreign oil, do you support or oppose – drilling for new oil supplies in currently protected areas off shore?”

This wording of this question has multiple problems, but I’ll focus on one in particular.  . . .

A leading question is a question that contains a false presupposition. The potentially false presuppositions here are that expanded offshore drilling will “help solve the energy crisis” and “make America less dependent on foreign oil.” As many commentators have noted, the energy crisis is primarily a demand-side problem. Efforts undertaken to marginally increase energy supplies, while ignoring the broader problems of waste and excessive consumption, will not necessarily do anything to “help solve the energy crisis.” It is also not clear that increased offshore drilling would “make America less dependent on foreign oil,” despite being a relatively prominent conservative talking point. As a fungible commodity, oil is sold on the global market at prices determined internationally. Oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico by a multinational corporation is just as likely to end up in a motorbike in Wuhan or Shenzhen as an SUV in Des Moines or Sacramento.

At best, both of these presuppositions are matters of opinion. At worst, they project conservative frames as fact, immediately prior to asking a highly charged and overtly political question. Either way, they don’t add anything meaningful to our understanding of public opinion on the issue.

Using liberal/environmental frames as the presuppositions, the question could have been worded differently: “To prevent catastrophic environmental disasters like the one currently taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, do you support or oppose – drilling for new oil supplies in currently protected areas off shore?”

Is there any doubt that such wording would have produced different results?

If the goal of the question is to determine the level of support for offshore drilling, why not ask that directly? Associating the practice of offshore drilling with two presumably positive outcomes is likely to prime participants for pro-drilling responses.

I’ve emailed my complaints and questions here to the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. I’ll update here with their response, once they’ve provided it.

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