A Poll is Not an Election

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Here’s a reminder to those groups touting a new poll showing that, in the words of the release, “California voters overwhelmingly support a $1.50 tobacco tax increase.”

A poll is not an election. And what voters say in a poll doesn’t always reflect what happens on election day.

Joel Fox, the lead hound on this blog, wrote Wednesday that the push for an increase in the tobacco levy is a none-too-subtle attempt to ease voter resistance to tax hikes in general, clearing the way for future boosts in a wide range of tariffs.

Maybe so, maybe no. It’s no secret that Democrats in the Legislature and public employee unions have been leading the charge for closing the state’s $26.3 billion budget hole with a mixture of cuts and tax hikes. But if they think the shopworn numbers in the new poll are likely to change any minds in Sacramento, they haven’t been paying enough attention to past California politics.

The poll, based on a bipartisan survey last month of 600 likely voters, showed that 73 percent, including nearly two-thirds of the Republicans, back a $1.50 boost in the tobacco tax, with 85 percent of the money going to ease the budget deficit.

“Based on these survey results,’’ wrote the pollsters, one Democratic and one Republican, “a tobacco tax will have broad and solid support from an otherwise divided California electorate.’’

While the survey shows strong support, it’s actually a couple of ticks lower than the 75 percent backing for tobacco tax hikes found in a Field Poll taken last April. And the other times Field has asked that question over the past 26 years, support has been even higher.

So how come voters bounced Prop. 86 in 2006?

That ballot initiative would have boosted the tobacco tax by $2.60 a pack and used most of the money, not to pay off the state’s bills, but for far more popular things, like improving health care and providing health insurance for kids.

Welcome to politics. What seems like a great idea in an issue poll – “Sure, let’s tax smokers” – might not be so popular after opposition interest groups spend tens of millions on TV ads to get their side of the story out. It’s ugly, it’s expensive and the arguments might not all pass the smell test, but that’s how initiative campaigns work in California.

That well-financed opposition is how 63 percent support for the Prop. 86 tobacco tax hike in July 2006 could drop to 53 percent in late September and then plummet to 45 percent in late October before finishing at a losing 48 percent when all the votes were counted.

At their best, polls are a snapshot of where public opinion stands at a certain moment. And when this new bipartisan poll was taken late last month, that moment featured the desperate attempts to close the state’s budget gap, not loud, expensive and impossible-to-ignore attacks on the very idea of a tobacco tax.

The political pros who did the polling and the interest groups promoting it (the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association commissioned the poll) all know that the results being trumpeted could be very different after the sort of $66 million-plus campaign the tobacco industry ran to derail Prop. 86.

That’s why the strategy is to use the poll, and the growing concern about the state’s budget mess, to raise such a public clamor for the tax hike that the Legislature and the governor will be forced to approve it, without all the trouble, cost and uncertainty a ballot battle can bring.

That’s not likely to happen. The governor and the Legislature’s Republicans, who have vowed to block any new taxes, know how polls work and know how they can change when the opposition money starts flowing.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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