Saturday, February 18, 2012

Week in Review: Poll Says Rail Support Has Fallen, But Flawed Question, Timing Erode Its Credibility; Call for Serious Transit Discussion Went Nowhere

It’s not how rail supporters wanted their Sunday to begin -- with a big fat headline on page one announcing a dramatic erosion of public support for the Honolulu rail project.

In the end, however, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s public opinion survey may become a University of Hawaii case study on how not to sample public opinion.

After the initial shock, the survey’s flaws seemed as obvious as the huge headline. That same morning Yes2Rail’s own headline said Newspaper’s Rail Poll Can’t Be Taken Seriously: It Was Conducted as Cayetano’s Mayoral Campaign Dominated Broadcast, On-Line, Print Journalism.

Former Governor Ben Cayetano formally announced his mayoral candidacy and intention to kill rail on January 19. The newspaper’s survey research company began its telephone poll one week later and continued calling over the next 10 days – throughout the heavy media coverage of Mr. Cayetano’s anti-rail comments.

There’s a host of ways to unintentionally weaken a survey’s credibility, and not being mindful of what else is happening at the time is one of them. You have to wonder how both the newspaper and its survey experts failed to see the obvious potential for their poll’s timing to affect its results.

But There’s More
As bad as the timing was, it’s even worse to include a question in a survey that can influence the response. The survey had a second major problem, as we headlined on Thursday: It’s Time To Blow Up the Star-Advertiser’s Rail Opinion Survey because of a Flawed Question: ‘Do You Think Work Should Proceed on Oahu’s Rail Transit System?’ Isn’t the Same as Asking ‘Do You Think the Rail Transit System Should Be Built?’

In addition to the publicity surrounding Mr. Cayetano’s campaign for mayor, the media have been covering the so-called Gang of Four’s lawsuit that’s proceeding through the federal court process with the goal of killing the rail project.

It’s highly probable and even likely that some survey respondents who answered “no” to the “should proceed” question, which was reproduced in our headline exactly as it was asked, actually support rail but think it’s prudent to wait until the lawsuit is settled, one way or the other.

The two obvious flaws add up to a flawed result. The alleged erosion in support for rail is so different from the results of previous surveys and elections (see our "aggregate" site under the Public Opinion heading) that the recent poll must be viewed with suspicion.

And then…..
By week’s end, when it seemed a full quota of weird already had been achieved, things got weirder, as summarized in our Friday headline: Civil Beat Challenges Mayoral Candidates To Talk Seriously about the Merits or Problems with Rail, So What does Ben Cayetano Do? He Refuses To Talk with Civil Beat’s Rail Reporter, Banishes Him.

Mr. Cayetano’s strange response to Civil Beat’s aggressive investigative journalism may itself become a case study in UH’s political science and journalism courses. How it all plays out, as editorials often sagely observe, remains to be seen. The serious debate of transportation issues among the three leading mayoral candidates has yet to begin.

And with three more opinion pieces in the S-A this week by the paper’s regular columnists, our 2012 prediction is holding true: They still haven’t written “a single paragraph of positive content about the Honolulu rail project.” Holding your breath is not recommended.

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