Polling on the Chicago Olympics: Let the Games Begin

Oct 1, 2009 10:48am

Whether or not it wins the 2016 Olympics tomorrow, Chicago’s organizing committee for the games has dropped the baton in an early event of no small significance: transparency.

Transparency, in this case, in the reporting of polling data – not exactly a marquee sport, I’ll allow, but one that matters much, both in the case at hand and in what it may portend for the committee’s future performance.

The foul comes by way of a news release sent out by Chicago 2016 on Tuesday, announcing that a new poll it’d sponsored found 72 percent support among Chicagoans for having the games in their town. This was an eyebrow-raiser for a simple reason: A poll last month for the Chicago Tribune found support far lower, just 47 percent, down sharply since last winter.

It’s usually not that hard to pick apart differences in polls; all we need is full disclosure of their methodology, questions and results. The problem, in this case, is that we can’t get them: Chicago 2016 told us all its senior representatives were in Copenhagen for the vote and unavailable to share the basics of their poll with us. Its polling firm, the Zogby organization, said it couldn’t release details without Chicago 2016’s permission.

A simple e-mail or call would’ve done it. But in a full day of our repeated requests yesterday, it never happened. That is unfortunate, and, as it happens, contrary to the Code of Professional Ethics and Practice of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the same outfit that last week dinged an Atlanta-based political polling firm, Strategic Vision, on just such an issue. (Strategic Vision denied it; see the back-and-forth here.)

Beyond the polling world, it’s hardly a pretty precedent for the would-be organizing committee of the putative Chicago Games.

What do we know about this poll? For one thing, while the news release says, “72 percent of Chicagoans surveyed want the games in Chicago,” the survey wasn’t done solely among Chicagoans; rather, the release says, in the “Chicago DMA.” That means  “designated market area,” which in Chicago's case extends beyond the city to encompass 16 counties more than 130 miles across. Chicago has 2.8 million residents; the Chicago DMA, 9.7 million. Disclosure would tell us what the data look like just in Chicago, the actual home of Chicagoans.

The Tribune poll, done by its longtime research provider, Market Shares Corp., was done in Chicago, the city. (Among registered voters only, but that’s not likely to make much difference).

We don’t know whether the different geographical bases of the surveys accounts for any of the difference in their results. Perhaps not; an earlier Tribune poll, last February, was done in Chicago, all of Cook County and the five surrounding “collar counties,” and it didn’t find any significant differences across these areas. But without details of the Chicago 2016 data, we’re in the dark.

There’s another apparent difference. The Tribune poll asked Chicagoans if they “favor or oppose” having the games in the city, typical question wording. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago 2016 poll asked DMA residents, instead: “Do you support having the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Chicago?” Assuming this is a direct quote (again, we don’t have the questionnaire), note the absence of the alternative proposition, “or oppose,” potentially a biasing omission. But truly it’s hard to see that in itself producing a 25-point swing.

Without the questionnaire we don’t know what else, if anything, was asked in the Chicago 2016 poll, or how it may or may not have influenced results to the bottom-line question. We don’t know much at all – little more than a number that appears to serve Chicago 2016’s purposes, released without the basic information we need to evaluate it. (Chicago 2016 told us it'd get us the materials we've requested at some point. News cycles being what they are, that is thin soup.)

In releasing it this week, Chicago 2016 may have assumed that this particular number might in some small way help it win the day when the IOC votes tomorrow. Maybe so. But if the committee does go forth from here, it might keep in mind an adage that one hopes is held dear by the athletes it seeks to host: Winning isn’t everything. It’s how you play the game.

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