Local Control, Local Policy and Polling

On the February 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we constructed a battery of questions with the intention of tapping into the distribution and structure of attitudes underlying what we – and likely many others – thought would be an extended debate about the scope and contours of local control in Texas. While we didn’t learn exactly what we had intended, the results seem to reveal that the rhetoric of local control is less a manifestation of a political philosophy that seeks to define the proper locus of governmental power, and more a tool used to support or oppose governmental actions depending on who’s acting and whether or not you agree with their actions.

Specifically, we asked respondents whether they “support or oppose allowing city or county governments the ability to regulate the following activities...” and then randomly presented them with seven policies or policy areas:

  • Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)
  • The distribution of plastic shopping bags by retailers
  • Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act
  • Smoking in public places
  • The use of mobile devices while driving
  • The regulation of guns
  • Enforcement of Federal immigration laws

These seven items were selected to capture a good sample of the issues in which local actions have been most instrumental in spurring the latest focus on – and rhetoric of – local control. For example, fracking was selected because of the Denton fracking ban; plastic bag distribution and the use of mobile devices while driving were selected for their recent prohibition in Austin (but also in a number of other, smaller Texas cities); and the enforcement of immigration laws was a nod to sanctuary city legislation seeking to take away from cities the ability to choose not to enforce certain immigration laws.

The logic behind this approach was to gather attitudes toward local control within the real world context of those debates, and through further analysis, to examine whether attitudes toward local control exhibit consistency, or alternatively, reflect the particulars of a given issue. 

The problem with this approach lies within this last statement: it is very difficult, and often not advisable, to design a survey question that attempts to measure more than one thing at a time (in this case, both broad attitudes toward local control and attitudes toward local control within a particular policy domain). At best, you might only end up measuring one of the two things that you set out to measure, and at worst, you might end up measuring some unknown mixture of both, making interpretation necessarily challenging, if not outright impossible.

Upon receiving the February results and performing the subsequent analyses on those data, we realized our error. While we had hoped that people’s attitudes toward local control would drive their responses on these items, subsequent analyses indicated that, instead, it was predominantly attitudes toward the issues themselves that we were likely measuring.

But, unfortunately, due to the reasons laid out above, we weren’t even obtaining a clean measure of these policy attitudes, because the question primarily asked about local control. In a sense, these items are akin to asking someone to respond with two words (e.g. “strongly support” or “strongly oppose”) to two questions at the same time: what do you think about local control, but also, what do you think about Medicaid expansion? Respondents necessarily have to make a choice as to which question is the operative one in their response. But those of us conducting the survey have no way of knowing which question they have chosen.

For example, are the 59 percent of Democrats who said they support allowing city or county governments the ability to regulate the distribution of plastic bags making a statement about whether cities and counties should be able to do this, or about their support for such bans? And likewise, are the 54 percent of Republicans in opposition on the same item opposing the idea of local control in this particular domain, or the plastic bag ban policy itself? The seemingly easy answer – given this partisan distribution – is to assume that they’re responding to the policy, but what about the local regulation of fracking, supported by 42 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans; or the local enforcement of immigration laws, supported by 58 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans? 

This last item is the especially problematic, because Republicans might be supportive of local governments enforcing immigration laws, whereas Democrats might be supportive of local government having the option not to enforce these laws. Or, maybe Democrats and Republicans are simply supportive of the concept of local control when it comes to immigration. But, when considered in the context of the responses to the other items, it may just be that these responses are wholly dependent on what the respondent expects the local government to do with their authority. The overarching problem is that we just can’t know based on the way that these questions were constructed.

To the extent that the results from these questions are interpretable, one plausible interpretation may come back to why the expectation of a pitched battle over local control was a misguided one in the first place. Local control is an abstract concept likely not to be highly conceptualized among most individuals, and therefore, is really less about attitudes toward the proper locus of government power, and more about the particular issues that local governments are seeking to address. If your local government is addressing an issue with a policy you find yourself disagreeing with, then maybe you’re less inclined to support local control than if they are approaching the issue with a policy that you’re in favor of (as suggested by the results on local control issues with partisan elements when taken in conjunction with the results on immigration enforcement).

It’s important here to remember, as Jim Henson and I pointed out in a recent TribTalk piece that put the local control debate in the context of attitudes toward federal, state, and local governments, that much of the local control rhetoric on the right has been in the context of public education. And on education, local control is about education practices that reflect conservative principles and traditional interpretations of science, history, social studies, and the like. In essence, local control was really about people supporting their policy preferences, not some abstract view of the proper location of governmental power.

This is not to say that these attitudes don’t exist, or that we won’t try to measure them more accurately another time: As long as political leaders invoke local control as a justification for policy, we’re interested in what they mean and how the public interprets what they’re saying. But next time, when we’re likely to stick with more direct ways of trying to gauge attitudes, I wouldn’t be surprised to find strong, consistent opinions on local control lacking.