If everything goes as planned, Cincinnati’s streetcar system connecting the University of Cincinnati to Over-the-Rhine and the downtown riverfront will carry its first passengers on Reds Opening Day in 2013 — about 25 months from now.
That’s the unofficial target date for the system’s opening, according to City Hall sources. But readers can safely bet that between now and then there will be plenty of overheated and inaccurate rhetoric designed to confuse citizens and block the project.
The latest example of this trend occurred Feb. 10 when The Enquirer published an article about a highly suspect poll on the project given to the newspaper by an avowed streetcar opponent, Anderson Township attorney Chris Finney, a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
When giving it to an editor at the newspaper, Finney reportedly claimed ignorance of the poll’s exact origins. “I have no idea who paid for it,” Finney is quoted by The Enquirer.
Uh, right. The Columbus-based pollster just decided to do the survey on a Cincinnati-specific issue of his own accord, then gave a copy to Finney on a whim. (“Let’s see, who would be interested in this,” the eager pollster must’ve thought, as he thumbed through the Yellow Pages.)
COAST teamed up with the NAACP’s local chapter in 2009 and put a charter amendment on the ballot that would’ve required a public vote before city money was spent on any rail-related project. It failed, 56-44 percent. Now, that same coalition is collecting signatures for an amendment aimed specifically at the streetcar.
Finney’s claim, like others that we’ll get to in a moment, was taken at face value by the newspaper’s supposedly seasoned, hard-bitten staffers. That’s directly contrary, of course, to the media’s traditional watchdog role throughout much of U.S. history.
The “poll” found that 19 percent of Hamilton County voters think the planned streetcar is a good idea, while 75 percent think it’s a bad idea and 6 percent were unsure. Within Cincinnati city limits, 28 percent of voters surveyed think the project is a good idea, while 66 percent disliked it.
Tellingly, the poll found 39 percent of city voters think that, once the project is completed, the streetcar system will improve the local economy in the downtown area, either a lot (15 percent) or somewhat (24 percent).
According to the mysterious poll, African-Americans (48 percent), women (30 percent) and Democrats (43 percent) were most optimistic about the project.
In other words, The Enquirer’s target demographic dislikes it the most, which might explain why it was so willing to run the numbers.
No one, however, should either take solace or be disturbed by the data. A closer look reveals the polling process — or what little we know about it — raises significant questions and should include major caveats.
The poll was conducted by Fallon Research & Communications Inc., headed by Paul Fallon. It surveyed 502 randomly selected voters in Hamilton County by telephone. Of that number, 302 were Cincinnati residents.
That means just 0.09 percent of the city’s population was polled, and just 0.06 percent of the county’s.
All of that might be OK and statistically representative if we knew more about exactly who answered and how they were selected, which are two of the many questions about the poll that Fallon won’t disclose.
Of the voters sampled, the margin of error is plus or minus 5.6 percent for the city results and 4.37 percent for countywide responses, according to the newspaper.
By the way, the margin for city responses is pretty high, compared to most polls. Also, Fallon did tell The Enquirer that respondents “were individuals with residential or cellular telephones who have a history of voting in recent odd-year elections.”
And there’s the rub: Most voters — and especially younger voters — tend to vote only in even-year elections, specifically presidential elections. Compare the turnout rate between 2008 and 2009, or between 2004 and 2005, if you don’t believe me. The difference is substantial.
Further, Fallon’s explanation is vague. For example, if the requirement for inclusion was voting in the past two mayoral elections, as opposed to just one (in 2005 and 2009), no one under age 26 could’ve participated as those people wouldn’t have been out enough to vote in the ‘05 election.
Polls depend heavily on how they slice up the pie, and young urban voters are the streetcar’s biggest supporters.
All of this brings to mind the phrase uttered by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
CityBeat contacted Fallon to ask if he would give us the actual list of questions asked, along with the cross-tabulations, so the numbers could be scrutinized. He declined.
The Enquirer eventually posted four questions on its Politics Extra blog that Fallon gave to an editor. That editor then wrote, “As you can see, they’re straightforward — not ‘push poll’ type questions.”
“Push polling” is when a pollster is hired by a specific candidate or special interest group and phrases questions in a manner designed to elicit certain responses from people. That type of polling is different from the more credible, impartial polling done by groups like Gallup or Rasmussen.
The thing is, we’ve heard from people who were polled that there were many more questions asked than just the four listed. Moreover, some of the questions were crafted like a push poll, specifically ones asked about City Councilman Chris Bortz, a major streetcar supporter.
Fallon did tell The Enquirer, “For the record, I do not have a direct interest in the issue and have not been retained by anyone that I believe is involved. I paid for those questions, which were included as part of an omnibus survey for a variety of clients.”
Again, Fallon wouldn’t disclose the clients. A look at his Web site, though, shows his firm described as “paid advisers for corporations, levy committees, interest groups and political candidates.”
What is known about Fallon is that many of his former clients are Republican candidates, and the local GOP is adamantly opposed to the streetcar project. Among the types of clients listed on his Web page are homebuilders’ associations.
No surprise there. Such groups are notoriously anti-mass transit. The Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati was one of the largest contributors against the MetroMoves ballot issue in 2002, which would’ve built a regional light-rail system, along with a streetcar system in the city. (That might discourage people from buying newly constructed houses on former farmland, don’tcha know.)
CityBeat sent a list of questions to Fallon. They included: Why were non-city residents polled when the streetcar system is a city of Cincinnati project? Were there push-polling questions asked about the project and Bortz? Have you ever been hired by a Democratic client?
Fallon replied, “I am sorry Kevin, but do not have time to respond to all this.”
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