Monday, June 22, 1998
Questions Follow Disparity in Public Opinion Polls
BERKELEY, Calif. -- For weeks it was a watchword of the anti-bilingual education campaign: Latinos support Proposition 227.
Public opinion polls backed up the assertion, showing Hispanics strongly in favor of the measure mandating all-English classrooms.
But something unexpected happened on election day.
Although the measure sailed through with 61 percent of the overall vote, Los Angeles Times-CNN exit polls indicated that Hispanics turned it down by a decisive 63 percent.
"In no other comparable instance that I can think of have I seen the pollsters get it so wrong," said Harry Patron, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Southern California thinktank.
For Patron, the disparity was a third strike against pollsters, who he said also underestimated Latino opposition to California's ballot battles over illegal immigration and affirmative action.
"If we would have had this happen in the mainstream election, there would have been a crisis of conscience, a crisis of examination as far as polling is concerned," he said.
Patron and others believe pollsters need to include more Hispanics in their surveys and may need more Spanish-speaking interviewers.
Hispanics -- just under 30 percent of California's population -- made up 12 percent of the June 2 turnout.
That was double their turnout in the 1994 primary, a show of strength that may require pollsters to "think differently about the way they approach a question, the way they approach an audience," said Guillermo Rodriguez, executive director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco.
But at the Field Institute, which reported that 52 percent of Hispanics surveyed from May 20 to May 26 supported the measure, pollster Mervin Field called the criticisms "a pursuit of nothing."
"The polls had, I think, a very good record," he said.
Field said Proposition 227 began with strong support from all groups, with Hispanic support dropping steadily as Latino leaders waged a campaign against it.
"With that kind of movement you could expect that a majority of Latinos would not be supporting 227," he said.
Los Angeles Times pollsters who reported 62 percent of Hispanics surveyed in May supported the measure did not return telephone calls to The Associated Press.
At the Public Policy Institute of California, senior fellow Mark Baldassare said his May numbers indicated a 48 percent split for and against the measure among Hispanics who were likely to vote. That was a 10 percent drop from the month before and not out of line with the exit poll figures, he said.
"What the various results have told me is that we need to continue ... to be careful about our sample sizes," he said.
Proposition proponents weren't entirely convinced of the election day statistics, gleaned from questioning 5,143 voters.
"Frankly, we're puzzled by the inconsistency," said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the campaign, "English for the Children." "It seems odd that 11 polls prior to the election show majority support for Proposition 227 and then it suddenly drops to 37 percent support."
Still, even that figures shows the measure was supported by some Hispanics, she said.
Proposition 227, sponsored by software millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, essentially did away with the state's 30-year-old bilingual education system by decreeing that all children must be taught in English. Those who can't speak the language are to be put in a special English immersion program for no more than a year.
Since 80 percent of the state's limited-English students are Spanish speakers, the issue was of keen interest to California's Hispanic population.
Unz, who challenged Gov. Pete Wilson for the GOP nomination in 1994 on an anti-187 platform, had strenuously denied he was trying to play on California's race nerve, still throbbing from battles over cutting services to illegal immigrants (Proposition 187) and dismantling state affirmative action programs (Proposition 209).
As with those two measures, civil rights groups are taking Proposition 227 to court.
What was going on behind the numbers?
Parent Gabriel Medel believes Latinos were turned off when they learned of Proposition 227's one-year limit.
Medel, who is from Venezuela, said that as an adult immigrant to the United States he was able to pick up English by watching television news at night and then reading the same accounts in the morning newspapers.
But he said children need the more comprehensive approach of bilingual education, which teaches children core subjects such as math and science in their primary language.
"They have to have access to the curriculum," said Medel, a member of the Los Angeles community group Parents for Unity. "We have a lot of people who speak English but they cannot get out of the garden, out of the kitchen of the restaurant because they have not had a good education. That's what the vote of the Latino was reflecting."
Opponents were aided by a late infusion of $1.5 million from the owner of the Univision Spanish-language television network.
They also got the indirect aid of a last-minute proposition endorsement by Wilson. Unz had predicted that could hurt the measure with Hispanics still smarting over Wilson's championship of Proposition 187.
Although they lost the ballot battle, proposition opponents were cheered by Latinos' increased numbers at the polls.
"The positive is that you're seeing incredible numbers of Latinos (becoming citizens)," said Theresa Bustillos, vice president of legal programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The new voters represent diverse viewpoints, "we don't vote as a block."
But they may have a common theme, she said.
"I think Latinos are trying to say, 'Hey, we have a voice."'