Polls: Finding the Right Words in the Numbers

Free-Range Thinking | May 2000

Facing an attempted repeal of a controversial “death with dignity” law, Oregon Right to Die polled voters on a range of issues. The results confirmed the group’s hunch: their primary message should not be about death with dignity.

Have you ever watched a terminally ill person die? Fortunately, I have been spared this experience, but we have all heard stories – of a loved one’s agonizing pain and suffering, of the observer’s sorrow and sense of helplessness, of the conflicted wish that the end could have come sooner. From these private moments a public movement was born, one dedicated to helping the dying legally obtain a physician’s aid in speeding the inevitable. Like other movements that are genuinely about life and death, this one immediately faced fierce opposition from those who believe the decision to end a human life is not the province of man, nor should it involve physicians who for ages have been trained, “First, do no harm.”

This emotionally-charged issue went to the ballot box in Oregon in 1994 and again in 1997, and the battle there is far from over. For the public interest community, though, the 1997 election is worth revisiting. Polling is a tool many groups employ, but rarely is it used as skillfully as it was by Oregon’s right-to-die advocates in ’97, and rarely will you find a better example of how polls can help shape your message.

Round One: Establishing the Rights of the Terminally Ill

In 1994, Oregon voters faced Measure 16, a proposed law that would allow a terminally ill patient to engage a physician’s aid in ending his (or her) life. Early polling showed strong support for the “death with dignity” measure – as high as 60% in one survey – but well-funded opposition from conservatives and faith-based groups steadily chipped away at this lead. On Election Day, the new law was approved by the narrowest of margins, 51% to 49%, and its advocates collectively breathed a sigh of relief. As Paul Goodwin, the pollster for Oregon Right to Die, put it, “Our opponents knew that if they had more time they would probably have defeated it.”

Many of these opponents were in the state legislature, and they immediately sought ways to undermine and weaken the law. Over time it became apparent that the legislature, as a body, would not sanction an outright repeal, so the law’s critics launched a campaign to place their own initiative on the ballot. In 1997, Measure 51 presented Oregon’s citizens with a second chance to vote on the right to die, but this time to repeal it.

Round Two: Defending the Will of the Voters

Eli Stutsman, who would lead the fight against 51, turned to GLS Research and Paul Goodwin again, and Goodwin’s poll yielded promising results. Support for the death-with-dignity law had returned to the 60% range, “but we knew in the course of the campaign that lead would shrink again if we tried to re-fight the same battle,” recalled Goodwin. John Duncan, executive director of Oregon Right to Die, and press secretary Geoff Sugerman were coming to a similar conclusion. A battle to preserve the law, they believed, might be more effectively waged on different turf. Sugerman cited an expos� in Willamette Week, a local newspaper, that ran during the summer of ’97. Entitled “To Lie For,” it explained how certain legislators were providing cover for themselves by positioning their repeal effort as a public initiative.

Duncan was struck by the state’s experience with ballot initiatives, a long history extending back to the early 1900s. The successful 1994 right-to-die initiative was not only the first in the United States, it was the first anywhere, and there was considerable pride around this point. (Oregonians didn’t name their NBA team the “Trailblazers” for nothing.) More importantly, you had to go back more than 70 years to find the last and only instance of an initiative being overturned. Measure 51, Duncan realized, was flying directly into the headwinds of history.

Rather than wage another war over morality and medical ethics, Oregon Right to Die shifted its focus to the process behind the repeal effort. The next poll asked voters how they felt about this statement: “Once a ballot measure is approved by a majority of Oregon voters in an election, the state legislature should respect the will of the people and not try to overturn that measure.” When a whopping 80% agreed with the statement (with 67% strongly agreeing), the team knew how to re-frame the issue. They would continue to discuss the importance of keeping the death-with-dignity law, but their primary message would spotlight the other side’s intent to overturn the will of the voters.

The pro-repeal forces put up billboards claiming the right-to-die law was “fatally flawed,” but Oregon Right to Die turned their message around on them, saying it was the repeal effort that was fatally flawed. The repealers spent roughly $4-million against Oregon Right to Die’s $850,000 and were able to reduce a large lead once again. But when you can frame an issue around a principle that 80% of the people support, you can lose a lot of voters and still emerge victorious. And that’s precisely what happened: the repeal attempt was routed, 60% to 40%. While many voters still didn’t like the existing law, far more were opposed to having their will ignored.

Just as one very carefully conceived poll had predicted.


 free-range follow-up

Sure, the Internet is great, but.
Why this story (was originally) in your hand and not on your screen

I am frequently asked, “Why don’t you distribute free-range thinking via e-mail or post the articles on a website?” I can’t argue with the money that would save or the environmental benefits of sending bits instead of atoms, but there is a reason which keeps me firmly committed to the newsletter format, and it’s eloquently articulated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their new book, The Social Life of Information:

“.people read between the lines, finding other means to make sense and corroborate (or undermine) what the text itself says. It’s not pure information alone, but the way the information was produced that supports interpretation. Documents are not indifferent to the information they carry. They help shape it and, in the process, help shape its readership.”

Printing stories on paper forces me to edit; the web is boundless, but that license to add more information isn’t always a good thing. (As Mark Twain said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”) Further, when I send a printed page, I know you’re receiving the words I wrote in their entirety. Web-based text is easily edited or excerpted by the sender, and stories often change as they are digitally forwarded. Finally, according to American Demographics magazine, the average office worker receives 189 messages of various types each day. That gives me a tiny window of opportunity to get my message through — concisely, as intended, and in a form that will enhance your response to the information. So for now, I’ll stick with the cows.and the “snails” that bring them to you.