By Len Lazarick
An overwhelming majority of people responding to a Baltimore Sun poll this week — a whopping 94% — called “Maryland’s ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines” “unconstitutional.” What’s more, 18,109 people responded to the “poll” published Tuesday, meaning about 17,000 responders objected to the new bans.
Right below these amazing results was the daily warning “results not scientific.”
No kidding. This was not a real public opinion survey seeking a random sample of the population that would show what a representative group of Maryland citizens think of the new law. It was one of those pop quizzes made possible by the wonderfully interactive nature of the Internet.
More typical results on cell phone violation
The next day, under the daily headline “What Maryland thinks” on the op-ed page, was a more typical result to a less inflammatory question. “Do you support Maryland’s new law that will authorize police officers to pull over motorists who are talking on hand-held cell phones?”
Certainly this is a potentially controversial new law, but it got only 383 “votes.” Three out of four of them — 76% — supported the new law. (“Results not scientific.”)
Blame game for federal shutdown
Then Thursday, Sun readers were asked “Who is most to blame for the federal government shut down”? This time there were 2,267 votes on line: 69% blamed “the Republican-controlled House of Representatives;” 8% blamed “the Democrat-controlled Senate;” and 24% blamed “President Barack Obama.”
That sounds more in line with what Sun readers might think, but who knows? These are just opinion entertainments, with little more predictive legitimacy than the horoscopes that run a few pages before. Most days these Sun “polls” run next to the Doonesbury cartoon.
In the case of the gun control question, most likely the well-organized network of Second Amendment advocates — gun nuts, as their gun-grabbing opponents might characterize them — clearly flooded the pro-gun control newspaper with “votes.” (It appears you can vote more than once if you use a different computer.)
The polls on Maryland blog sites about the race for governor have the same entertainment value, and lack of predictive quality. A while back, a columnist colleague objected when Maryland Reporter’s daily State Roundup linked to the Red Maryland “poll,” which is also “not scientific.” It would be interesting to know who’s up and who’s down in the three-way Republican race, but that poll only shows who a self-selected group of Republicans were backing, many of them encouraged to respond to the poll by the candidates themselves. (Here are the September results.)
To their credit, Red Maryland tells you from what counties and congressional districts the votes came from. This breakdown shows that Anne Arundel County is way over-represented in the poll, compared to a typical Republican primary vote, and other subdivisions, such as Baltimore County, have a smaller percentage than they should. That would explain why Anne Arundel County Del. Ron George is doing so well, or it just shows more of his supporters read Red Maryland. And at least you know who runs Red Maryland, which can’t be said for Red White and Blue Maryland Political News, which runs a poll but appears to be run by some unnamed David Craig supporter.
Real polls do random samples
So what about real polls, the polls Maryland Reporter and others do stories about?
Last week, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s campaign released a poll showing him ahead of Attorney General Doug Gansler 43%-21%. Of course, it was paid for by the campaign, but it had credibility because it was done by well-known pollster Frederick Yang, of Garin-Hart-Yang.
Yang’s memo about the poll included standard pollster language: “Between September 11 and 15, 2013, Garin-Hart-Yang interviewed a statewide sample of 608 likely Democratic primary voters. The survey, which has a margin of error of +4.0 percentage points, is fully representative of a 2014 statewide Democratic primary electorate by key geographic and demographic factors.”
That’s what real public opinion surveys are supposed to do.
That’s what Public Policy Polling of North Carolina says it did for the poll released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Marijuana Policy Project.
Their poll results said that a majority of Maryland voters — 53% of those polled — support regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol for sale to adults over 21. Even larger majorities (72%) support legalizing it for medical uses, and decriminalizing possession of small quantities (68%).
The groups who paid for this poll favor these policies and the end of marijuana prohibition. And the pollster is consider Democratic and left-leaning. But the 678 randomly selected Maryland voters with a margin of error of 3.8% has a lot more credibility than something slapped up on the Internet by bloggers or a legacy news site like the Sun, especially if 18,000 people respond.