The Likely and the Less Likely: Insights from the New Law School Poll

The Registered and the Likely – maybe that could be the name of a political soap opera, although I doubt it would attract high ratings in the general public. But it would attract high ratings among those involved in election campaigns and those eager to understand those campaigns and politics overall.

New results from the Marquette Law School Poll, released Wednesday, put the Registered and the Likely in the spotlight. Among 815 registered voters across the state, Republican Gov. Scott Walker led Democratic challenger Mary Burke 47.5 percent to 44.1 percent in the race for governor. But among 609 participants in the poll who were labeled likely to vote in November, Burke led Walker, 48.6 percent to 46.5 percent.

So who’s ahead, Walker or Burke? The best answer is that it’s too close to say – by both measures, the race is within the margin of error of the poll.

But that doesn’t mean the distinction between registered and likely voters is unimportant, as was shown in other results. Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Law School Poll, described them during the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” event at which the poll results were unveiled.

As part of the poll, people are asked whether they intend to vote in November. Franklin said those who say they are certain to vote are considered likely voters. “As pollsters, we try to measure both opinions and the likelihood that voters will act on their opinions by voting,” Franklin said in the news release accompanying the poll. “Some registered voters may cast a ballot who today are not certain that they will; on the other hand, even among people registered who say they are absolutely certain to vote, we know that a portion of them won’t actually do so, for turnout on election day is invariably lower than the percentage who say they won’t miss the chance. Still, the differences in involvement and enthusiasm about voting are enormous between the likely voters, who say they are certain to vote, and those who admit there is at least some chance they will stay home from the polls. The difference in vote between likely voters and all registered voters is a measure of the roles turnout and enthusiasm play in the election and tells us which party, at the moment, is enjoying greater intensity.”

Franklin gave examples of the differences between the likely and less-voters in the new round of results.

One example: Among those likely to vote, 69 percent said they follow politics “most of the time.” Among the less likely, the number was 27 percent. A second example: Among likely voters, 26 percent said they had not heard or didn’t know enough about Burke to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of her yet; among less likely voters, the figure was 61 percent. Also, less likely voters were more undecided about their choice for governor (14 percent) than likely voters (2 percent).

And the key to the two different overall outcomes was that less likely voters favored Walker over Burke by 50 percent to 31 percent, while likely voters favored Burke by the 2.1 percentage point margin listed above.

Building up turnout and taking advantage of the enthusiasm of supporters are central factors in how each campaign is being conducted. Voter turnout is always lower in a non-presidential election, and both campaigns will push in every way they can to get their core supporters to vote on Nov. 4. But one implication of the poll results is that the Walker campaign particularly will have reason to try to convince those who are less committed to voting and Burke campaign strategists will want to do whatever they can to make sure likely voters become actual voters.

The full results of the poll include the first public results on the attorney general’s race, which is clearly in its early stages when it comes to introducing each of the candidates to the public as a whole, as well as results on a range of policy issues facing Wisconsin. The full results may be found by clicking here.

Social Position and Attitudes about Income Inequality

Over the last four decades the gap between rich and poor in America has widened. According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the share of pre-tax income held by the top 1% of US earners has increased dramatically since the 1970s; in 2012, the top 1% held nearly a quarter (23%) of total pre-tax income.  To be sure, liberals and conservatives disagree about the causes of inequality and government’s responsibility to address growing income disparities. My contention here is not to weigh into these debates, but rather to examine attitudes about income inequality more broadly. What do Americans think about this growing inequality and what, if anything, should be done about it?

Public opinion data can provide some insight. For example, the General Social Survey (GSS) polls Americans on whether respondents think “income differences in the United States are too large.” The data suggest that over the past 25 years, a majority of Americans have consistently rated the income gap as too large. There has also been a modest uptick in public concern over that period, as actual income differences have increased. The share of respondents who “strongly agreed” that income differences are too large nearly doubled between 1987 (15.7%) and 2010 (27.1%), though the change in the overall share of respondents who either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” was not nearly as dramatic (58.5% in 1987 versus 64.6% in 2010).  Opinions on the matter have also become slightly more polarized.

Ascribing meaning to these public opinion data can be tricky though because Americans have varying understandings of the real distribution of income in the US.  One study asked respondents to first estimate the actual income distribution and then to construct their ideal distribution.  Both the estimated and ideal distributions of wealth were vastly more egalitarian than the status quo. And interestingly, the authors found remarkable consensus across demographic and partisan groups. But does this mean Americans want government to intervene to decrease income inequality? Although the ideal income distributions constructed by respondents looked more like Sweden than the United States, would more Americans support a Swedish-style welfare state if only they knew the true extent of income disparities? The evidence here is mixed.

My colleague Meghan Condon (Loyola University Chicago) and I are investigating this question. One idea we are testing is that frame of reference—how you view your own social position—will shape your attitude about inequality. If you see yourself as lower on the economic ladder, you will be more likely to view income inequality as a problem and believe government should do something about it. To test this theory, we included a survey experiment on the latest Marquette Law School Poll. Respondents were presented with the following:

Think of the people in the United States who are the (worst/best) off—those who have the (least/most) money, (least/most) education, and the (least/most) respected jobs. In particular, we’d like you to think about how you are different from these people in terms of your own income, educational history, and job status.

Respondents were randomly assigned to either think about the least or most advantaged in society (reflected in the parenthetical text above). Following this prompt, we asked respondents to place themselves on an income scale.  We then asked a series of questions about income inequality.

Our results provide evidence that frame of reference does matter. Respondents who were told to think about the most advantaged in society placed themselves lower on the income scale than those who were told to think about the disadvantaged. Further, those primed to think about the wealthiest Americans were more likely to say that income differences in the United States are too large. Our findings are consistent with other research showing that people are more likely to endorse generous donations to charity when they are induced to think of themselves as relatively lower than others in socioeconomic standing.

Most respondents believed that society should ensure equal opportunity for all (87 percent), but respondents were more divided on what explains income inequality and what government should do about it. Overall, 34 percent of respondents agreed that income inequality exists because it benefits the rich, and 40 percent agreed that the government should try to reduce income differences. Priming respondents to think about the worst or best off in society did little to move opinions on these issues.

Thus, thinking about social position relative to the rich (as opposed to the poor) caused people to express greater concern about income disparities, but did not change how people view the causes of or best solutions to inequality. Seeing yourself as lower on the economic ladder might make you more likely to view inequality as a problem, but would not necessarily make you more likely to want government to do something about it.

In the real world, perceptions of social position like this are influenced by media coverage, neighborhood contexts, and workplace interactions. How these experiences matter for public opinion about inequality remains largely unexplored. For example, the share of families living in neighborhoods that are mostly poor or mostly affluent has doubled since 1970. Rich and poor Americans are increasingly segregated from one another and fewer live in what we might call “middle-class” neighborhoods.  Researchers havespeculated that this spatial segregation of affluence will reduce wealthy Americans’ support of policies that benefit the broader public, such as schools and public transportation.

We find on the contrary, however, that individuals express the most concern about income inequality when they are primed to think ofthemselves as living lower down the income ladder, not when they are spurred to think about others living on the bottom rungs.

Amber Wichowsky is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

Wisconsinites Like Truth-in-Sentencing . . . Sort Of

By Michael M. O’Hear

The latest edition of the Marquette University Law School Poll includes some interesting data on sentencing policy. I’m grateful to Professor Charles Franklin for collaborating with me in putting the questions together. The results are here (note that the sentencing questions start at Q25a).

The primary purpose of the questions was to determine the attitudes of Wisconsinites toward truth-in-sentencing, which was adopted by the state legislature in 1998. The questions are timely in light of recent political debates over new early release opportunities for prison inmates, which were embraced by the legislature in 2009, but then repealed two years later. Early release undercuts truth-in-sentencing by introducing uncertainty into the actual date that inmates will be released. Indeed, critics of the 2009 reforms complained — in what was probably a bit of an overstatement — that the new early release mechanisms “gutted” truth-in-sentencing.

At first blush, the new poll seems to provide strong support for the 2011 repeal and the return to a purer form of truth-in-sentencing: a decisive 63% majority agreed that “truth in sentencing should continue to be the law in Wisconsin.” (25c) Moreover, only 27% agreed that “many of the people who are locked up in prison do not deserve to be there,” and only 37% agreed that “many of the people who are locked up in prison could be safely released without endangering the community.” (27d, e)

But the story is a little more complicated than might first appear.

Take a look at the following:

26a: 85% agree that “Criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”

26c: 67% agree that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”

26g: 55% agree that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

These answers, especially the latter two, are inconsistent with pure truth-in-sentencing, and are arguably more in the spirit of the 2009 reforms.

What gives? How could one person (as apparently many did) agree with both truth-in-sentencing and early release based on rehabilitative success?

I think there are at least two considerations that help to explain the apparent contradiction.

First, take a look at how we defined truth-in-sentencing laws: “Laws that ban parole and require prisoners to serve the full term of their sentences, regardless of what they do in prison.” (The full text of what was read to survey respondents is here. An explanation of the poll methodology is here.) By foregrounding “parole” in this way, we implictly invited respondents to equate a vote for truth-in-sentencing with a vote against parole. But parole has a lot of particular negative connotations in this and many other states.

If you go back and study the history of the debates over truth-in-sentencing in 1997-1998, as I have done, you will see that parole was blasted by critics from across the political spectrum as unprincipled and insensitive to public safety concerns. The parole spigot was turned up to full blast in the mid-1990’s to deal with prison overcrowding, then turned down and up and down again, apparently in response to various administrative and political considerations. The Wisconsin experience must surely have reinforced the pervasive, negative image of parole in popular culture as “revolving-door justice.” In any event, it seems safe to assume that few Wisconsinites regarded parole as a reliable gauge of rehabilitative progress.

The continued negative connotations of parole are evident in the 2009 reforms themselves, which created new early release opportunities that might fit certain textboook definitions of parole, but that carefully avoided the term “parole.”

Thus, when 63% of Wisconsinites say that they favor truth-in-sentencing, they may not be rejecting the theory of parole — early release based on rehabilitative progress — so much as the actual historical practice, which fell far short of theoretical ideals.

That’s one way of reconciling support for both truth-in-sentencing and early release. In essence, people are saying, “We like the idea of getting rehabilitated offenders out of prison, but we don’t like that awful system we had in the ’90’s that didn’t really pay any attention to rehabilitation.”

My second hypothesis requires some background to explain. Researchers have identified two distinct types of reasons why the public supports tough-on-crime legislation. (See my post here.) One type of reason is instrumental: the public simply wants to reduce the risks of criminal victimization. This theme was commonly sounded by some supporters of truth-in-sentencing in the ’90’s. Their basic idea was that TIS would reduce crime rates by keeping criminals locked up longer — no more violent offenders conning the parole board into letting them go early to prey on unsuspecting victims.

The other type of reason is symbolic. We like to be tough on crime not so much because we think new laws will really do anything to make us safer, but because passing tough laws is a way of communicating things about ourselves that we like to communicate: that we support crime victims, that we dislike criminals, that we support individual responsibility and accountability, that we subscribe to traditional moral values, and so forth.

Symbolic themes along these lines also figured prominently in the TIS debates in the ’90’s — my impression is even more prominently than the instrumental themes. Just think about the label used for the legislation itself: this was a law that purported to be about “truth,” not “safety” or some other term with instrumental connotations. We vote for truth simply because it is morally attractive to vote for truth — no other justification is necessary.

The new polling data suggest that instrumental and symbolic reasons both continue to play a role in support for truth-in-sentencing. In fact, more people support truth-in-sentencing (63%) than believe that it “helps to reduce crime and make Wisconsin safer” (55%, 25b). A whopping 70% recognize the symbolic character of truth-in-sentencing, agreeing that it “sends a message that society will not tolerate crime.” (25a) And a majority (54%) agreed that “even if [TIS] does not reduce crime, it would still be the right thing to do.” (25d)

It seems clear that some meaningful share, perhaps even a dominant share, of the public support for TIS stems from symbolic considerations — from the sense that by supporting TIS, one communicates one’s support for a certain set of attractive moral values: “truth,” individual responsibility, accountability, etc.

But these sorts of moral values do not necessarily have to lead to support for truth-in-sentencing; this association just happened to emerge as a result of the way that our crime-and-punishment politics have played out over the past 50 years.

In 2009, early release was presented to us in instrumental terms, specifically, as a cost-saving measure. But it could have been presented in moral, symbolic terms. Indeed, in a pair of recent articles, I’ve been trying to develop a moral theory of early release (here and here).

To be successful, such a theory (and practical reforms based on such a theory) must address common (not entirely unfounded) perceptions of prison and parole — that prison is merely a place of passive waiting for release, that prisoners have few opportunities and little support for doing the sorts of things that might help them to become productive citizens upon their release, and that parole release is normally handed out as a matter of course, without regard to whether an inmate has done anything but play basketball and watch TV while behind bars.

However we treat the passive, unproductive inmates, there is an argument that the prisoners who really do work hard for many years and accomplish everything they can to lay a foundation for successful reintegration into society should be released, not because they are “safe” or because it is “cost-effective” to do so, but because they deserve to be released. That, at any rate, is a way of thinking about early release that is not contrary to, but reinforcing of, individual responsibility and accountability.

Our poll questions were worded so as to associate early release with positive actions by inmates (not just passive waiting) and with moral/symbolic values:

26a: “Criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”

26c: “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”

26d: “Even if such an earned-release progam does not reduce crime, it would still be the right thing to do.”

26g: “Once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate [note that the inmate carries the burden] that he is no longer a threat to society.”

So, let me try to pull all of this together for a more succinct statement my second hypothesis. It is not really a contradiction to support both truth-in-sentencing and early release for inmates who work hard to rehabilitate themselves in prison, because both “votes” are really for the same thing — for an ethic of individual responsibility and a criminal-justice system that gives people what they truly deserve.

I’ve offered two preliminary attempts to make sense of the data. Both hypotheses resonate with me, but I certainly can’t rule out other possibilities. I hope to do some more intense number-crunching with the data later this year, which may clarify things a bit.

Michael O’Hear is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School.