The results of the Vanderbilt Poll came out today. The poll conducted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions included people from all over the state and focused on the public's approval of the Legislature.
Unfortunately, based on what little information is available about the poll, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions says in a news release:
"The poll did indicate majority support for legislation that prohibited cities and counties from passing anti-discrimination laws that are stricter than state law."
But did it? And what was the actual question? Let's break it down.
Question matters: How you ask a question has an important bearing on the results of a poll. We all know that. We don't know exactly how Vanderbilt asked the question. Did they ask (a) whether people support a state law prohibiting "cities and counties from passing anti-discrimination laws that are stricter than state law," as the quotation above reads or did they ask (b) whether people "oppose local governments' passing laws that ban discrimination by such contractors against gays and lesbians," to use a phrase found later in the release?
Maybe I'm just too close to the issue, but here's why I think the difference between a and b matters. Question a in the form of HB600 actually was before the Legislature. It is a law in which the state explicitly prevents cities and counties from applying discrimination standards beyond what the state and federal governments do. Question b, which is a premise of the larger debate, has never been before the state. It has only been before individual local governments like Shelby Co, Memphis, and Metro Nashville. If they want to ask question b, they should ask it city by city or county by county. Question a much more closely matches the state law that has actually been passed.
Which question did the Vanderbilt Poll ask? We don't know. By the way, there are people who both oppose local governments expanding non-discrimination policies to their contractors AND oppose the state preempting cities from doing so. I can think of a few Metro Council Members who hold these views. So clarity on the question would be helpful.
Was it a majority? I'm confused about this point as well. The release says that "nearly 40 percent" support legislation that prevents cities and counties from passing stricter non-discrimination standards tougher than the state or oppose cities from passing such protections (again, we don't know what they asked) while "slightly less than a third of those responding say they favor such anti-discrimination protection," according to the previously cited release. The Tennessean says that the number is "almost 44 percent" on one side and "about 28 percent" on the other.
Huh? Did someone spill coffee on the final report? Why don't we have a real number here? And what about everyone else who didn't fall into the nearly 40 to almost 44 percent or the slightly less than a third to about 28 percent categories? Do they not know where they stand or do they not care about the issue? In any event, neither "nearly 40" nor "almost 44" percent is a majority. We used to call that a plurality. It must be that "new math" I keep hearing about.
Going forward: I really think it would be helpful if Vanderbilt released clearer numbers and the actual questions in the future. I also think it might help to consult people on both sides of an issue as an aid to framing the questions.
Finally: Regardless of which question the poll asked, the results are troubling. We have more work to do to persuade our fellow citizens that explicit protections are needed to prevent discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Tennessee.