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Welcome to the first installment of the “Real Numbers” blog.

Numbers are knowledge. Numbers are power. They influence everything from media coverage to policy decisions. Unfortunately, not all numbers are created equal. This venture will cast a critical eye on the use of numbers in the public domain – to sort out how “real” numbers are. This blog will generally focus on New Jersey issues, and occasionally venture into the national arena.

The objective is to foster a keener awareness of how numbers are used and misused in the pursuit of political gain or notoriety. As creators of some of those numbers, we at the Monmouth University Polling Institute understand the impact “statistics” can have. Polling numbers will certainly be fodder for many of the entries on this blog, but it will also examine other “real numbers” that gain public currency (e.g. funding formulas, health care stats, voting turnout, etc.).

In some cases, the blog will turn its attention to numbers built on faulty methodology. But in many more cases, readers can expect a discussion of how justifiable variations in methodology can be used to reach different conclusions.

For example, what does the New Jersey public consider to be a “significant” property tax cut? In a poll we conducted in July 2006 most homeowners selected a dollar amount that averaged about 15% of their property tax bill. But we also found that their perception of “significant” depended on how the question was asked. If we started off the questioning at $250 and worked up to $2,000, most respondents settled for a lower amount. But if we started the suggested level at $2000, many respondents would not accept the lower boundary as being significant.

In any event, after the final “caps and credit” deal was signed last year providing a property tax credit of 20% for most homeowners, our February 2007 poll found that only 1-in-10 who had heard of the plan believed it would deliver significant, long-term relief. That opinion seemed to have more to do with the plan’s lack of systemic reform than with the dollar amount saved in the first year. Indeed, a Quinnipiac Poll released around the same time found that a large majority of New Jersey voters approved of the intention to lower property taxes by 20%, but disapproved of how the governor and legislature had handled the issue.

In the end, the main objective of this blog is to increase accountability for the dissemination of numbers in the public domain, including any numbers that appear on this site. So when you see a post that is off base, let me know by posting a comment.

In the meantime, for those of you, especially journalists, who would like to learn a little more about interpreting polls for the non-pollster, spend a little time with this free News University online training, developed by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.