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The 52% and the 49%

The poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (a conservative think tank) finding 52% of resondents opposed to the Milwaukee to Madison high speed rail project has received some play in the area press, dutifully reported by, among others, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Channel3000.com.

Those stories didn't dig very deeply, mostly taking the results at face value and not getting into details like the wording of the questions.  But of course in any polling the wording matters mightily.  In this one, respondents were first asked simply "do you support or oppose the Milwaukee to Madison passenger rail project?"  No details about the project, just a lead-in observation that "there has recently been debate about whether the state of Wisconsin should go forward" with the project (whatever "the project" it is--fill in the blanks, I guess, with whatever one might imagine, or heard from politicians or on talk radio). 

If I knew little more about the project than that it is  controversial and that its future is in doubt--the not-so-subliminal message embedded in the question--I think I'd be more likely to "oppose" or at best not venture an opinion one way or another than to say "support."  But I can't help wondering if responses might have been different had the question been been something like: "Last year Wisconsin was awarded $810 million in federal funding to improve the rail line between Milwaukee and Madison and establish a new passenger train service between those two cities.  Do you support or oppose this idea?"

WPRI asked a second question on rail, responses to which it claims show that opposition grows when respondents "learn more" or are presented "more information" about the project.  Except that what that question offers isn't really more "information" but two straw-man arguments that provide a few (to say the least, selective) additional details then ask respondents to choose the argument closest to their point of view.  The only additional facts about the project--that it is being funded by 800 million in federal dollars which, if not used for this project, will be redirected to other states--are presented as something "supporters say," as if they were a matter of opinion.  On the other hand, something that really is a matter of opinion, that the federal funding will not cover the "inevitable cost overruns," is presented as something "opponents say" in a way implies truth value on a par with the factual statements of the supporters. Or perhaps greater truth value, since the way the word "inevitable" is slipped in leaves unclear whether the 'inevitability' of cost overruns is an opinion of opponents or a fact to which opponents are pointing in questioning the adequacy of the federal funding.  In any case, more seems to be going on in the crafting of this question than merely providing "more information."

That polls often have a particular slant isn't news.  It is worth noting that even a poll in which one might suspect an anti-rail slant still only found 52% outright "opposed" to the rail project.  The more interesting news is that only 1% each believe either stopping the train or saving the train should be a top priority for the new state leadership.  So any hopes for a groundswell of public outrage over losing the train (even by a substantial minority) that might prompt the governor-elect to rethink his decision to kill the project appear misplaced. 

The only slight glimmer of hope for rail supporters lies in the other responses to that same question about top state priorities, showing 49% believing improving the economy and protecting jobs should be job one.  That combined with fact that so few see stopping the train as a priority suggests there may be little real advantage to the governor-elect, and possibly a major downside, to getting bogged down in a prolonged fight over the train issue at the outset of his administration, particularly if it starts to seem like a distraction from his economy and jobs agenda. But that assumes supporters of the project can find a way to make a fight of it.

Whatever scant leverage rail supporters might have may hinge on that 49% or some critical subset thereof. Particularly if business leaders who have the governor-elect's ear, or the ear of key Republican legislators, are prepared to make the argument that the basic infrastructure this project would create, in the form of a rail line for fast movement of both passengers and freight between Wisconsin's two major cities (and between both those cities and Chicago), is a potential boon to the state economy--whatever one thinks of "the train" in the sense of a particular passenger rail service with particular service attributes--that might carry some weight.  So, perhaps, would the argument that shutting down the project undercuts the whole "Wisconsin is open for business" message by eliminating a major link between Wisconsin and the business markets in which it is trying to compete.

But that's a long shot.  Clearly, unless and until many in that 49% (many of whom presumably are also among the 52% who oppose the rail project) perceive a real link between their priority economic concerns and the potential benefits of the rail line (or at least the negative effects of killing it), a new leadership that clearly doesn't see that connection holds all the cards, and can claim further vindication in this poll.  The growing percentage of the population may see the connection eventually, just not in time to save the train this time around.  Alas, the next time around may be a long time coming.


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