Between North Carolina’s bathroom law and President Barack Obama’s recent school bathroom mandate, bathroom use has suddenly burst on the scene of public opinion. Now pollsters and politicians alike are scrambling to figure out what Americans really think about bathrooms and privacy.
CNN quickly released a poll with the headline proclaiming that “6-in-10 Oppose Bills Like the North Carolina Transgender Bathroom Law,” a bill intended to maintain gender-specific restrooms until a transgender person takes steps to change his or her sex on his or her birth certificate.
But other polls found very different results on the same topic. Both Gallup and New York Times/CBS News polls found that the majority of people thought transgender individuals should use the bathroom corresponding to their birth gender.
So what happened? Did America change its mind in just a week? Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport theorized that the difference in wording and question structure might be the cause of the noticeable swing in the polling results.
Newport believes the following could have swayed CNN’s results:
- Giving respondents just one stance to react to, instead of two opposing options
- Using the term “facility” instead of something clearer like “bathroom” or “restroom”
- Using the term “laws,” which sounds “sterner”
Here’s what the CNN poll said:
Overall, would you say you favor or oppose laws that require transgender individuals to use facilities that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their gender identity? Do you [favor/oppose] that strongly or somewhat?
The Gallup and New York Times/CBS polls looked more alike. Gallup’s read:
In terms of policies governing public restrooms, do you think these policies should require transgender individuals to use the restroom that corresponds with their birth gender or should these policies allow transgender individuals to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity?
And the New York Times/CBS poll read:
Do you think people who are transgender—that is, someone who identifies themselves as the sex or gender different from the one they were born as—should be allowed to use the public bathrooms of the gender they identify with or should they have to use the public bathrooms of the gender they were born as?
What would happen if you adjusted some of these factors that Newport pointed out? Would the results come out the same?
The American Perceptions Initiative, a market research initiative of The Heritage Foundation, decided to find out. We didn’t use the split-sample design Gallup mentions, which means factors like time elapsed between the polls could be partly to blame for any differences.
But we did use the same platform CNN used—ORC International, which runs regular surveys for clients like CNN using nationally representative samples—and maintained the original format of the question, to keep everything as constant as possible.
We changed the wording to make clear to respondents what facilities could be impacted, as well as who would be given access, since the understanding of terms like “transgender” can differ and some of the controversy behind these laws was caused by the sheer breadth of people encompassed.
Within a few short weeks, debate had moved away from what North Carolina had done—essentially maintaining the status quo—toward Obama’s recent educational mandate, which required access for transgender students to opposite sex facilities in schools. We adjusted the language to reflect the changes that had occurred in the policy sphere:
Overall would you say you favor or oppose laws that give people who are biologically male, but self-identify as female, full access to bathrooms, lockers, and showers set aside for women or girls?
We found pretty big differences. The results show that 62 percent oppose laws that would give biological men, who self-identify as female, access to female facilities, while just 38 percent support it. That’s almost opposite of what CNN originally found.
In the CNN version, just 38 percent supported the “born as” bathroom option, while a majority, 57 percent, supported the “identify as” bathroom option. In our revised version, 62 percent, an even larger majority, now supported the “born as” bathroom option.
Differences could of course be affected by intervening events such as Obama’s mandate, which could be seen by some as premature and officious, or other factors.
However, it’s clear that some prominent polling headlines on this topic—such as The Washington Post’s “First Major Poll on ‘Bathroom Bills’ Is Good News for Transgender Advocates”—didn’t paint the full picture.
* The Gallup and New York Times response options were rotated, meaning the order of the two options was randomly switched across respondents to prevent order bias.