Do Billboards Matter to L.A. Voters? Or, How to Spin (or Misinterpret) the Results of a Student Poll

opinion-poll-2On March 25, the USC Daily Trojan published an article about a student-run poll of Council District 5 residents prior to the March primary election that purported to show, among other things, that billboard issues were of low priority to  voters. City Council Candidate David Vahedi was quoted as saying he was surprised by this result, since many residents had e-mailed him about the need to better control and regulate the new digital billboards that have recently spread through their neighborhoods.

But did the poll results really support the conclusion that most residents weren’t concerned about this issue? The way questions are phrased and put to respondents is critical to judging the results of any opinion poll, but the Daily Trojan story didn’t go into these details. Neither did a posting about the poll on the website of Pineda Consulting, a firm run by Andre Pineda, who also happens to be the teacher of the USC class where the idea of doing the poll was born.

However, Pineda did respond on the website to a query about the way the poll was constructed. He says voters were given a list of nine different issues–reducing wasteful spending in city government, improving public education, keeping residents safe from gangs, listening to residents’ concerns, creating jobs, dealing with traffic, managing development, providing basic city services, and “restricting the number and size of billboards in the district.” They were then asked if they wanted to go in the same direction with these issues as incumbent Councilman Jack Weiss, or in a different direction.

According to Pineda, 20 percent of voters said they wanted to go in the same direction as Weiss on the billboard issue, while 37 percent said they wanted to go in a different direction. This result, obviously, says nothing about how strongly the respondents felt about the importance of the issue.

Next, Pineda says, voters were asked which of the nine issues they believed should be the top priority for the councilman who will replace Weiss next July.  Of the 406 people polled,  17 per cent rated the billboard issue highest, the lowest percentage of the nine issues.

Does this prove that people don’t really care that much about billboards, as the Daily Trojan story implies, and as at least one city political blog has claimed as carved-in-stone fact? Does the fact that a person’s highest priority is getting something done about traffic or overdevelopment or reducing wasteful government spending mean that doing something about the garish, intrusive billboards and stopping illegal signs is unimportant?

Pineda didn’t respond to a request for the percentages for all nine issues, so it’s impossible to more accurately evaluate the results. One thing is clear, though, and that is 17 per cent believed that the billboard issue was more important than traffic and overdevelopment and public education and providing basic city services.And that is surely a fact of significance,  not a reason to conclude that people don’t really care.

Dennis Hathaway

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