It's Not Always What You Say, But How You Say It

Jul 12, 2017

Louisiana’s election season officially begins today with qualifying for the October 14th ballot, so can political “messaging” be far behind?

Whether you call it “messaging”, “spin”, “political correctness”, or even “fake news”, the words used in the political arena mean different things to different people. In linguistics, the emotional meanings attached to words is known as “semantics”.

LSU Public Policy Lab director, Dr. Michael Henderson – who heads the annual Louisiana Survey -- spoke with me about the science of semantics.

Sue: It’s something I learned about clear back in high school. And the analogy I learned was: take the word “mom”. You have an image of one person. I have another. It’s the same familial relationship, but “mom” evokes different feelings in each of us, based on our experiences with that person. How do you get at those nuances when you do public opinion surveys?

Dr. Henderson: That’s a very insightful way that you put it, with reference to when we use the word, “mom”. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that keeps pollsters and survey researchers up at night. You want these questions to mean the same thing for respondents, but they don’t always.

And so one of the things you can do is give a range of question wordings to see how fluid opinion is. We’ve done that every year for the last few years.

Public opinion can move on issues, and so when you do these variations, you can get a sense of just how fluid opinion might be – what directions it may or may not shift in.

Sue: As you dig deeper into how people feel about these certain issues, is Louisiana really a “red state”, based on the conventional meaning of that term?

Dr. Henderson: It depends a lot on the issues. It depends a lot on the framing. On economics, it’s a little more mixed. There are significant shares of the public – even those who consider themselves conservative – who are not the hardest of fiscal hawks.

Social issues? It gets a little bit more consistent with Louisiana as a red state. We’re seeing some very small glacial change on some issues, such as decriminalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage.

I think one of the biggest lessons one can learn from studying public opinion is that things are not always as simple as the conventional wisdom goes.