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Why Other Secession Pollsters Should Give Peace A Chance

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Last month, YouGov ran a poll we commissioned that found 58% of Californians in favor of seceding from the United States. YouGov’s Daily Questions Survey, run slightly earlier, found only 29% in favor. What could explain an almost thirty-point gap between two polls on the same subject run in the same month by the same reputable polling agency?

This is a guest post by C.C. Marin from the Independent California Institute.

I’m at least 95% confident it came down to these three things. Our Independent California Poll:

  • didn’t have a “Not Sure” option
  • asked about peaceful secession
  • asked about being “better off,” not whether California should secede

But don’t take my word for it! Please take a look at some of the research I did on other polls before I designed this one and decide for yourself.

“Not sure”: Comparing apples to apples

If all you knew about YouGov’s Daily Questions Survey was that 29% of Californians said they support California seceding from the U.S., you’d naturally assume the remaining 71% of Californians oppose secession.

But that’s not true! The actual results were 29% in support, 45% in opposition, and 26% not sure.

Our poll didn’t give respondents a “not sure” option—58% of respondents said they thought Californians would be either somewhat or much better off if California (peacefully) seceded, and the remaining 42% said they thought Californians would be somewhat or much worse off.

What’s a fair way to compare these two polls?

Responding “not sure” to a question you could reasonably have an opinion about (such as secession) is basically choosing to skip the question, which is what 26% of respondents to the Daily Questions Survey did. If we look at the remaining 74% of respondents who didn’t skip the question, about 39% of them were in support, and 61% of them were in opposition.

There, an apples-to-apples comparison! Now we have a gap of “only” about twenty percentage points to explain! The probability of this happening due to random chance (sampling error) is… literally less than a millionth of a percent. So what else could explain it?

“Peaceful”: Learning from the past

One of the first things I did before designing the Independent California Poll was to dig up data on every past poll I could find that asked Californians about secession. To make an apples-to-apples comparison between polls with “not sure” options and polls without, I used the same technique described above. I also accounted the for the larger margin of error that results from dropping the “not sure” responses from a poll.

Here’s what I found:

Some things to observe:

  • It doesn’t seem to matter who the President is; other than a possible dip in 2018, support for secession trended gradually upward starting in 2014
  • YouGov’s Daily Questions Survey is pretty much in line with polls in 2021.
  • Our poll (at the bottom of the chart) is not.

If you look just at just the five polls that happened after the Nov. 2016 election, there’s one that got significantly higher support, and it just so happens to be the only poll that specified secession would be peaceful. Here are those polls with a summary of the question asked:

The one poll that asked respondents if they supported California “peacefully withdrawing from the United States,” rather than (possibly violent) secession, got about 10% more support!

Weirdly, the Ipsos poll is the only poll of Californians I know of (other than our own) that specifies peaceful secession. However, the same effect is visible in polls of Texas secession. It turns out one thing Californians and Texans have in common is that we don’t want our home to be the site of a violent conflict with the world’s most expensive military.

Compare a June 2022 SurveyUSA poll that asked about Texas “peacefully negotiating a withdrawal” with a February 2024 Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll that asked Texans if they support their state simply “leaving.” I’m highlighting what happens if you drop the “not sure” responses so you can easily compare these to the California polls:

Voilá, an almost 10% increase in “Yes” responses for the poll.

Full disclosure: the reason the June 2022 poll specified “peacefully negotiating” is almost certainly me; I happened to be on the email list of the people organizing the poll, they asked for feedback, and I shared some of the same research with them that I’m sharing with you now.

“Better off”: Asking the Right Question

“Peaceful” only explains half of the effective twenty point difference between our poll and YouGov’s Daily Questions Survey. What else could be going on?

I strongly suspect that the other main reason our question polled so well is that we didn’t ask Californians if California “should” peacefully secede or (equivalently) if they “supported” California seceding; we asked if they thought Californians would be better off. This allowed Californians to set aside for a moment how Californian leaving the U.S. might affect Americans, or whether it would be the right thing to do, and just focus on themselves for a moment.

It’s a little like a therapist asking, “How do you think your life would be different if you weren’t in that relationship?” If, like the 58% of Californians who answered our poll, your answer is “better off,” what do you want to do about that? (One option to consider is re-negotiating the relationship: 68% of Californians in our poll thought they’d be better off if California negotiated a special autonomous status within the U.S.)

Where’s the data to back it up? The Feb 2024 Texas poll didn’t literally ask Texans if they’d be “better off” if Texas seceded, but they did ask if them something very similar: if Texas could succeed as an independent country:

Behold, a 13% gap between “secede?” and “succeed?”.

Americans, let’s talk about your relationship with secession

If people respond so much more favorably to poll questions about peaceful secession than secession-with-a-distinct-possibility-of-horrific-violence, why have pollsters continued to run polls about secession without specifying “peaceful”?

Granted, sometimes pollsters are deliberately trying to ask shocking questions. The stated purpose of the June 2021 YouGov poll was to assess threats to U.S. democracy, and the violent, unilateral secession of one or more states would certainly be that.

But a lot of the time, I think the people asking the question just aren’t aware that non-violent secession is on the table. Most Americans are taught a history of the U.S. that goes like this:

  • In 1776, Americans fought a war to secede from the British Empire and won (good unilateral secession)
  • In 1861, the Confederacy fought a war to secede from the U.S. so they could keep slavery (bad unilateral secession) and lost
  • From then on, the United States was truly united and no part of the U.S. seceded ever again!

But hold up, didn’t the Philippines peacefully become independent from the United States in 1946, after being an integral part of the U.S. economy for more than four decades? At the time the Philippines peacefully seceded from the U.S., they made up about 10% of the population of the U.S. empire—just under California’s proportion of the U.S. today (and bigger than that of Texas).

How did Filipinos accomplish peaceful secession from the U.S.? It wasn’t through war; the Philippines did fight a bloody war of independence against the U.S. from 1899-1902, but that accomplished basically nothing.

No, what happened is that Congress passed a law in 1934 establishing a process for the Philippines to become an independent country, and in 1946, U.S. President Harry Truman signed a proclamation recognizing their independence. Historians today think that a major motivation behind the bill was that, as residents of the U.S. Empire, Filipinos could freely immigrate to the U.S. mainland, and (racist) Americans of the time resented that.

Could California peacefully secede?

Now, it’s not a perfect analogy. Americans are more likely to think of California as part of the U.S. than they did the Phillipines (in a recent survey, “only” 30% of Americans outside California said California is “not really American”). And Americans love it when Californians move to their states (wait… they don’t??!). On the other hand, Californians have something Filipinos didn’t: nearly an eighth of the votes in the House of Representatives—try passing a budget or other must-pass legislation without California votes.

The Phillippines also enjoyed increasing levels of autonomy leading up to independence, starting with the 1902 Philippine Organic Act. Depending how you look at it, greater autonomy for California might either be a step on the way to California becoming fully independent, or a way to make that unnecessary. In any case, 68% of Californians think we’d be better off if we negotiated a special autonomous status for California. If U.S. history is any guide, that’s the exact right way to start.

Advice for secession pollsters

My plea to other people designing and running secession polls, is please, please, when you ask poll questions about secession, specify peaceful secession. If you’re worried that U.S. respondents might not know what peaceful secession looks like, talk about “negotiating with the U.S.” or “with the consent of Congress and the President.”

If, like me, you’re running a poll because you believe more independence from the U.S. would benefit your fellow Californians or Texans or wherever you come from, then the reason to close the door to violence is obvious.

On the other hand, if you’re just running that poll so you can shock people, think about what you want more: a shocking question, or a shocking result? If you want the latter, peaceful secession is still the way to go.

Some other things to try when designing a poll:

  • Leave out the “not sure” option. Basically every adult in the U.S. is able to offer an opinion on secession—why would you pay for a poll only to let 20-30% of respondents skip your questions?
  • Don’t just ask if respondents “support” their state seceding. Break it down: Would they be better off? Would Americans be better off? Is it possible? Is it the right thing to do?
  • Ask respondents about special autonomous status for their state. Any practical path to independence is going to require an interim period where state and local government take over things currently run by the federal government. Why not start that period now?
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