Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigns in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Most Virginians want to see budget surpluses reinvested back into government services instead of tax cuts, according to a recent poll. Or most Virginians think the government has enough money, as another recent poll found, to give some back to regular people.
How could two polls asking fundamentally the same question around the same time get two conflicting results? It depends which Virginians you ask. And how you ask them.
A poll released Feb. 21 by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership found 59 percent of registered voters “prefer spending the state budget surplus on underfunded government services, such as education, public safety and social services.”
A poll released March 3 by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which includes other political topics in its surveys on health-care issues, found 68 percent of likely Virginia voters supported Republicans’ plan for $5 billion in tax relief coupled with new spending on education and law enforcement.
Both polls could become fodder for the final week of the General Assembly session as lawmakers enter final negotiations on budget and tax policy. Youngkin has proposed a variety of tax cuts, including eliminating the grocery tax, suspending a scheduled increase in the gas tax, lowering income tax bills and sending Virginians tax rebates directly. But several of those proposals have failed in the Democratic-led Senate, where lawmakers have proposed more modest tax relief.
While CNU’s question referenced “historic budget surpluses” without getting into specific dollar amounts, the VHHA’s question noted Virginia is projecting a $14 billion budget surplus, which appears to be an approximation of the $13.4 billion surplus Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is projecting over three budget years. The poll question that found stronger support for tax cuts also told respondents spending the surplus on government programs would create “long-term taxpayer obligations.”
“No doubt the question wording can essentially shape how people view an issue,” said Quentin Kidd, the director of CNU’s Wason Center. “Surveying is an art and a science. And the art of surveying is the question writing.”
Kidd said that when he designs survey questions, he tries to keep them as simple as possible and reflective of the broader political arguments Republicans and Democrats are communicating to the public.
“These aren’t my words,” Kidd said. “I’m taking the argument that both sides are making and I’m putting them out there for respondents to decide.”
CNU’s revenue question ran 42 words, while the hospital association’s version was 109 words.
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“VHHA’s approach to polling going back many years is to provide a clear explanation to voters about often complex public policy issues so that voters have insight into different perspectives on the issues and can give an informed opinion when responding,” said VHHA spokesman Julian Walker.
The VHHA poll was conducted by Republican polling firm Mclaughlin and Associates. Its focus on likely voters could mean it more closely mirrors the Republican-heavy electorate that elected Youngkin last year. The CNU poll’s use of registered voters means it reflects a broader swathe of Virginians rather than those most energized in the current political environment.
The VHHA poll was conducted March 1-2 with 400 respondents. The CNU poll involved 701 respondents, with interviews conducted from Jan. 26 to Feb. 15.
The two polls also had different findings on Youngkin’s overall favorability. The CNU survey found Youngkin underwater, with 41 percent of respondents saying they approve of his job performance and 43 percent expressing disapproval.
The VHHA poll had Youngkin’s approval rating at 51.8 percent, with 39.4 percent disapproval.
Youngkin beat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year with 50.8 percent of the vote.
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