Typical opinion polls just may not be adequate anymore.
A representative sample of 136 area residents descended upon Yale this weekend for the New Haven Regional Dialogue, a deliberative poll. After extensive analysis of the issues, the participants increased their support for regional tax-sharing and maintained a high level of support for the expansion of Tweed-New Haven Airport.
“We entered on this challenge with the assumption that we would get a different picture than if we just took an opinion poll, and, indeed, that is what happened,” said professor Cynthia Farrar, the weekend’s coordinator. Farrar is the director of Yale’s Urban Academic Initiatives and works for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.
In a deliberative poll, a random sample of people takes part in a conventional opinion poll. The poll’s participants then spend hours studying and debating the issues among themselves and with experts on the issues before being polled again. Traditionally, deliberative polls have shown dramatic shifts in opinion.
“Ordinary polls often simply reflect the public’s impression of sound bites and headlines,” said James Fishkin, who invented the deliberative poll technique in 1988 while teaching at Yale. “As this Regional Dialogue demonstrates, we get a different picture of the views of the people when citizens have a chance to become informed and consider competing points of view.”
Participants came from 15 area municipalities, including New Haven and the surrounding suburbs, with varied understandings of the issues and varying opinions.
In the first round of polling, 80 percent of the group agreed with this statement: “My town should maintain local control over all of its tax revenues from new businesses and industries.” After the weekend, support for the statement fell to 42 percent. Tax base-sharing involves pooling tax revenues from all regional municipalities together and redistributing according to fiscal need.
Both before and after the weekend, 73 percent supported expansion of Tweed. The airport’s authority approved a 20-year master plan that would expand the runway on Feb. 20. State and federal approval hurdles remain, however.
Since Fishkin, now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, designed the deliberative poll, 18 have been held worldwide. Observers from Pittsburgh and Cambridge, England, attended the New Haven poll to consider running similar programs in their backyards.
While overall support for Tweed remained steady, those “strongly agreeing” with expansion fell from 49 to 41 percent, while those “agreeing somewhat” jumped from 24 to 32 percent.
“This suggests to me that the folks felt there were issues they did not have full information about and were not prepared to support Tweed quite as strongly,” Farrar said.
The sessions during the weekend gave people the chance not only to debate the issues, but also become educated on the fundamentals. For example, just 8 percent of the poll’s participants were aware that Connecticut law allows regional tax sharing. The poll following the weekend showed that 69 percent were properly informed.
“The engagement of the audience with the outstanding panelists that we had was remarkable,” said Enid Oresman, the president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, which sponsored the weekend. “They were really plugged in to what we were doing.”
Poll participants received $200 for the weekend. Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies contributed funding to the project.
Follow-up meetings with the participants and their respective town leaders will take place over the next few weeks. Fishkin said that he learned from past deliberative polls that additional sessions were necessary.
The poll’s administrators said the weekend demonstrated potential methods of approaching future regional political issues.
“This may well be a tool for encouraging citizens in this kind of problem solving,” Farrar said.