Wording matters when polling on collective bargaining

Tucked inside a new Quinnipiac University poll showing the percentage of Ohio voters who disapprove of Republican Gov. John Kasich rising was an interesting test of rhetoric and messaging around the ongoing debate over public-employee unions in cash-strapped states.

As in Wisconsin, Ohio Republicans have sought to restrict collective bargaining among public employees -- an attempt, Republicans say, to close a significant budget shortfall.

Quinnipiac smartly uses a split sample to test Ohio voters' opinions on the issue, asking roughly half of voters if they support or oppose "limiting collective bargaining for public employees." The other half of the sample is asked if they support or oppose "limiting collective bargaining rights for public employees."

Republican pollster Adam Geller suggested last month that the use of the word "rights" in national polling was making respondents more likely to oppose limits on collective bargaining.

The Quinnipiac poll finds voters are slightly more likely to support limiting collective bargaining when the word "rights" is omitted. When asked about collective bargaining rights, 35% of voters support limiting those rights, while 54% are in opposition. But, asked only about "collective bargaining," the spread is closer: 41% support, 48% oppose.

"Whether collective bargaining is a right or not is in the eye of the beholder, but the word 'right' appears to have an effect on the voters' response," said Quinnipiac University Polling Institute assistant director Peter Brown. "But no matter how the question is asked, voters oppose limits on collective bargaining."

The Quinnipiac poll was conducted March 15-21; 1,384 registered voters were surveyed, for a margin of error of +/- 2.6 percent. Margins of error are larger for split samples.

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