What The Polls Aren’t Telling Us: Experts Say Support For MCRI Is Likely Underestimated

Walter Nowinski, Michigan Daily, September 19, 2006

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposal that would ban some affirmative action programs in Michigan, could dramatically change the way the University operates.

The question is, will it pass?

Despite poll data that shows voters are split on the issue, there are indications that the proposal is likely to pass.

The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press have both released polls in the past two weeks. The News showed MCRI, which will be listed as Proposal 2 on the ballot, up by nine points. The Free Press had it down by two points.

Both polls also showed unusually high numbers of undecided voters.

And both are likely wrong.

Along with others, these polls seem to indicate that Proposal 2 remains in a dead heat, but there are three stories that these numbers do not tell, say several political analysts.

Support for Proposal 2—and opposition to affirmative action—may be significantly underestimated.

Similar initiatives passed by large margins in California in 1996 and Washington in 1998, despite pre-election polls that predicted a close vote.

The polls showed support for Proposition 209 in California and I-200 in Washington weakening as the pro-affirmative action campaigns intensified their efforts in the final weeks before the vote.

One week before the Washington election, a poll published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that Proposition I-200’s 20-point lead had evaporated.

Election returns proved this finding false: I-200 passed with a comfortable 16-percent margin.

Michigan could follow the lead of California and Washington.

In general, voters are reluctant to tell pollsters their opinions on sensitive issues, especially those concerning race, said Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC/MRA, the firm that conducted the Detroit News poll.

In the final weeks before an election, opponents can usually put a serious dent in support, and undecided votes tend to check ‘No’, he said.

Supporters of a ballot initiative would want to have about 60 or 70 percent of voters planning to vote ‘Yes’ at this point in the election cycle, Sarpolus said. Based on the News and the Free Press polls, Proposal 2 doesn’t have that. Although Proposal 2 is now polling below 50 percent, Sarpolus said it has a good shot to pass.

Mark Grebner, founder of the Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting, said people who would vote for MCRI are often reluctant to voice their opinions over the phone.

“When you ask someone about race over the phone, there is a lot of pressure to be a righteous person,” he said.

More people may be against affirmative action than those who are willing to admit it on the phone.

Since pollsters started measuring public support for the proposal last year, the ‘Yes’ vote has eroded from 70 percent to less than 50 percent as groups opposing the measure—including the Democratic Party, labor unions and several large Michigan corporations—have waged an aggressive ad campaign against the proposal.

In Michigan, supporters and opponents of MCRI have been campaigning since the U.S. Supreme Court largely upheld the University’s affirmative action programs in 2003.

“For the past year, opponents of the MCRI have been casting it as a proposal that hurts everyone, especially women,” Sarpolus said. “But if Ward Connerly can turn it back into a black versus white issue, like he did in Washington and California, it will pass.”

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