Words matter, particularly with poll questions

2 polls on the same issue a month apart come to different conclusions

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date for the initial poll on the so-called millionaire tax. The two polls were a year apart, not a month apart.

A POLL released in mid-January 2021 indicated 69 percent of registered voters in Massachusetts either strongly support or somewhat support the constitutional amendment poised to appear on the November ballot creating a higher tax on income over $1 million. 

On Wednesday, a poll of likely voters came to a very different conclusion on the proposed constitutional amendment — only 37.2 percent of those surveyed strongly supported or somewhat supported the higher tax.

Nothing much changed over that year-long period between the polls except who was asking the question, who was being asked the question, and the way in which the question was asked.

The poll in January 2021 was sponsored by a series of foundations and groups (Boston Foundation, Hyams Foundation, King Boston, Amplify LatinX, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and others) and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, which is affiliated with MassINC, the parent nonprofit of CommonWealth. 

The poll said the ballot question would create an additional 4 percent tax on income over $1 million a year, a trigger that would rise with inflation. 

The poll in February 2022 was sponsored by the right-leaning Fiscal Alliance Foundation and conducted by Jim Eltringham of Advantage Inc., a Republican-affiliated polling company in Washington, DC. The February poll said legislative leaders have placed a referendum on the November ballot that would amend the state constitution to allow lawmakers to raise the income tax on some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses. 

The questions on both polls were accurate, but they emphasized different things, which probably influenced the poll results. 

The January 2021 poll question specified how much the tax would be (4 percent) and how it would apply only to income over $1 million. The February 2022 question never mentioned the figure of $1 million. Instead, it placed heavy emphasis on the fact that legislative leaders crafted the question, which would allow them to raise the income tax on “some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses.” 

The January 2021 question overall is more precise about how the tax would work and makes clear that it would only apply to millionaires. The February 2022 question is more vague about the particulars of the tax, but very specific about who put it forward and, to some degree, who might be affected. 

Eltringham said he wasn’t trying to include messaging in the poll question to steer respondents to a desired conclusion. “We really tried to strip down and make it as bland as possible,” he said. “Again, there’s going to be a campaign around this so there’s going to be messaging around it. It’s always going to be in some kind of context. We really don’t want to use terms that would try to skew it one way or another.” 

Eltringham said another question in the February poll did have “some messaging.” The question said that if the ballot measure passes, the Legislature would be able to raise the income tax from 5 percent to 9 percent for some high-income earners and middle-class small businesses — “meaning that those people could see their taxes increase by 80 percent.” The question asked if the increase was too high, too low, or just about right. 

It’s true an increase from 5 to 9 is an increase of 80 percent, but it’s not true that those affected by the tax would see their taxes increase by 80 percent. The ballot question would only assess the 4 percent surtax on a person’s income over $1 million, not all of the person’s income. 

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said the increase was too high, nearly 2 percent said it was too low, and 18.3 percent said it was just about right, according to the poll

Eltringham said he did not want to refer to the million-dollar threshold — as the January poll did —  because it would sway those answering the poll questions. “There is a fair amount of connotation when you start talking about it as a millionaire’s tax, and you start conjuring up images of people in top hats and monocles,” he said. “So we didn’t want to talk about it in terms of that.” 

As for the inaccurate claim in the question that those affected would see their taxes increase 80 percent, Eltringham said the 80 percent increase in the tax rate was “an important talking point.”

The bottom line is words matter. Trying to boil down a complicated ballot question into a few sentences isn’t easy and involves a series of value judgments about what’s important and what’s not. Those value judgments can sway how voters view an issue and ultimately how they vote on it, which is why the actual ballot question summary and the “yes” argument in a voter information guide are currently being challenged in court. 

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The lawsuit questions the accuracy of the claim that the money raised by the tax can only be used to fund new spending on education and transportation, when in fact the money is fungible and subject to legislative appropriation. 

Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, who helped present the results of the poll on the ballot question Wednesday, is also part of the group challenging the wording of the information voters will see in November.