Public Opposes Foreign Companies Owning U.S. Seaport Operations

by David W. Moore

Question-wording experiment reveals problems in phrasing questions

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The firestorm over the Dubai ports deal has fizzled out, now that the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) company has withdrawn its intention to buy the cargo operations at several U.S. seaports. Still, Congress is considering a law that would prohibit any foreign-owned company from buying cargo operations at any U.S. seaport, and Gallup wanted to find out what the public was thinking about the issue. Previous polls by several organizations revealed a widespread opposition to selling cargo operations to the Dubai company, but public opinion on foreign-owned companies more generally was not clear.

In a March 10-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, respondents were asked whether they would "favor or oppose a bill that would prevent any foreign-owned company from owning cargo operations at seaports in the United States." By a two-to-one margin (64% to 32%) respondents said they opposed the bill, meaning that they would favor allowing at least some foreign-owned companies being allowed to own cargo operations at U.S. seaports.

Would you favor or oppose a bill that would prevent any foreign-owned company from owning cargo operations at seaports in the United States?

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Mar 10-12

32

64

5

These results seemed out of line from what other data suggested was the public mood. After all, six polling organizations had asked variants of a question on whether the public supported or opposed allowing the United Arab Emirates company to own the cargo operations in several U.S. seaports, and by margins of greater than two-to-one, with some results showing margins of nearly four-to-one, the public indicated opposition. It seemed unlikely that such overwhelming opposition to the Dubai ports deal could be a reaction just to the UAE company.

On the other hand, in a Feb. 28-March 1 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 71% of respondents said it would be okay for Great Britain to own cargo operations at U.S. seaports, though Americans were opposed to the same privileges being accorded to China and to friendly Arab countries, and they were divided about France (50% opposed, 45% in favor).

Do you think the federal government should -- or should not -- allow companies from each of the following countries to own cargo operations at U.S. seaports? How about companies from -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

2006 Feb 28-Mar 1
(sorted by "Yes, should")

Yes,
should

No,
should not

No
opinion

%

%

%

Great Britain

71

26

3

France

45

50

4

Arab countries that are friendly to the United States

40

56

4

China

31

65

4

These results suggest that at least one foreign country should be allowed to own U.S. seaport cargo operations. Britain was the only one Gallup tested that received a favorable response, but perhaps there could be others.

A March 2-5 ABC News/Washington Post poll also suggested some ambivalence from the American public about the issue. Fifty percent of Americans opposed the Dubai ports deal because they felt no foreign-owned company should own U.S. seaport cargo operations, but 23% supported the deal and another 17% opposed it only because the company was from the United Arab Emirates -- suggesting they were not opposed to any foreign-owned company, just companies from this particular country. These results suggested a 50% to 40% split against foreign-owned companies.

As you may know, a company owned by the government of a nation called the United Arab Emirates is in a merger deal that will give it management of six U.S. ports. Do you think this company should or should not be allowed to manage these ports?

(Asked of those who think this company should NOT manage the ports:)
Do you feel that way mainly because you don't think any foreign company should manage a U.S. port, or mainly because you don't think a company owned by the United Arab Emirates should manage a U.S. port?

COMBINED RESPONSES

2006 Mar 2-5

%

Should not be allowed

70

(Because no foreign-owned company should)

(50)

(Because no UAE company should)

(17)

(No opinion)

(3)

Should be allowed

23

No opinion

7

Despite the different surveys and different questions, the results indicated the public was probably more opposed to allowing foreign-owned companies into U.S. seaports than in favor, and that perhaps question wording had misled the public as to what the survey question was asking.

The question seemed reasonable enough: "Would you favor or oppose a bill that would prevent any foreign-owned company from owning cargo operations at seaports in the United States?" But the results suggested that as people were listening on the phone, they may have missed that the question was referring to a bill to prevent foreign-owned companies from owning cargo operations in U.S. seaports. If people were against foreign-owned companies, they would have had to say they were in favor of the bill. That seemed like a double negative from a linguistic perspective, and thus likely to confuse. Also, it was possible that some people might have heard the "foreign-owned companies" part of the question, and not the "bill to prevent" part. So, when respondents said they were "opposed," they may have meant they were opposed to the foreign-owned companies, not the bill itself.

An objective way to determine if question wording was the problem was to conduct a split-sample experiment. Half the sample was asked the original question, and the second half was asked: "Would you favor or oppose a bill that would allow only U.S. companies to own cargo operations at seaports in the United States?" With this question, respondents who favor excluding foreign-owned companies from owning cargo operations in U.S. seaports would say they favor the bill. The double-negative characteristic of the original question is eliminated.

The results of the poll, conducted March 13-16, show quite different results based on question wording. The original version, repeated in this poll, continues to show a substantial majority of Americans against the bill. The percentages are a little less negative now compared with the percentages measured in the poll conducted a few days earlier, but the pattern is clearly similar.

Would you favor or oppose a bill that would prevent any foreign-owned company from owning cargo operations at seaports in the United States?

BASED ON 502 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Mar 13-16 ^

38

58

4

2006 Mar 10-12

32

64

5

^ Asked of a half sample.

The alternate question finds more than a two-to-one margin in favor of a bill to allow only U.S. companies to own cargo operations in U.S. seaports, 68% to 25%. These results suggest just the opposite conclusion from the original question -- that instead Americans give widespread support to Congress' efforts to restrict ownership by companies from foreign countries.

Would you favor or oppose a bill that would allow only U.S. companies to own cargo operations at seaports in the United States?

BASED ON 498 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Mar 13-16

68

25

7

Still, even with such overwhelming results, there is doubt about the exact percentage of Americans who would support the proposed bill. After all, we know from Gallup's earlier poll that 71% of Americans think it is fine if companies from Great Britain own cargo operations in U.S. seaports, though these companies would be excluded from doing so by the new bill. And we see from the ABC News/Washington Post poll that only 50% of Americans said they opposed the Dubai ports deal because they opposed all foreign-owned companies from that kind of arrangement, while the Gallup poll showed a much stronger opposition based on a different way of asking the question.

So, where does the public really stand? Probably the public would accept a bill that denied most foreign-owned companies from U.S. seaports, but made exceptions for America's closest allies, such as Britain and Canada. On the other hand, would Americans be upset if companies from Britain and Canada were also excluded from owning cargo operations in U.S. seaports? Probably not. But, nobody asked.

Survey Methods

Current results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 13-16, 2006. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error due to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the 502 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 498 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of error due to sampling and other random effects are ±5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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