Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Poll shows support* for reform

*Kind of.

Check out the Plain Dealer front page today and you'll see a sidebar with some eye-popping poll results. It says 75 percent of Cuyahoga County voters would definitely or probably vote to approve a new charter for county government.

That convinced the Greater Cleveland Partnership, which hired the pollster, to support the county charter petition drive with $100,000.

But I can see at least three reasons to attach big asterisks to the results.

The first reason is right in the 2nd paragraph of the story:

"Slightly more than half of the 400 people surveyed... said they favor the Go Cuyahoga reform plan. The approval rate jumped to 75 percent after respondents were asked seven questions that outlined the plan's goals."

The "slightly more than half" number is the one I'd trust. Polls commonly start with a neutral question, then ask leading, one-sided questions to see if they change people's minds. It's a way of testing possible campaign messages.

But during an election, the other side will counter with its own message. Fund-raising will determine which message voters hear more often.

So imagine how that "slightly more than half" figure would decline if another poll used just one of the common arguments against the reform plan: "Opponents say the new county charter would concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, who would appoint almost all other officials in the government. Now how would you vote?"

(The proposed charter would replace the current county government with a county executive and 11-person county council. Here is the proposal as a Word document.)

Another reason for skepticism: only 13 percent of those surveyed were black, even though Cuyahoga County is 29 percent black. Attracting black voters is one of the reformers' biggest challenges, since most black political leaders in town, including U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, oppose a charter.

Brent Larkin, who's read the poll, reported in his Sunday column, "Among black voters, results differed only slightly from the total numbers." But the reformers will have to work hard to hold onto black voters' support if Jackson and Fudge hit the airwaves to urge a no vote.

Finally, getting on the ballot can be as hard as winning on Election Day. Go Cuyahoga has until Monday to get 45,458 signatures. (If some of those signatures are ruled invalid, they would have a chance to collect more.) Parma Heights Mayor and Go Cuyahoga leader Martin Zanotti says he's confident the petition drive will succeed. But a similar county charter effort in 2004 turned in 74,000 signatures -- yet so many were invalidated, it fell 153 signatures short of making the ballot.

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