Bohannon offers peek at survey


David Bohannon has disclosed to The Almanac the results of a public opinion poll his company commissioned regarding a land development proposal in the eastern reaches of Menlo Park.

The poll, conducted by the firm Godbe Research, asked a representative sample of people likely to vote in the November 2010 election whether they supported the Bohannon Development Co.'s proposal for three eight-story office towers, a 230-room hotel, and several large parking garages. Pollsters also asked people whether they would vote for the proposal if the Bohannon company placed it on the ballot as a voter initiative.

It follows on a similar poll the company commissioned in early 2009. According to Mr. Bohannon, the company ordered the polls so it could better understand the milieu in which the city is processing the project, and to prepare for the possibility that the issue will be decided not by a vote of the City Council, but by Menlo Park citizens: in a voter referendum, or an initiative sponsored by either the Bohannon company or the city.

Brian Godbe and Mr. Bohannon sketched the poll results for The Almanac on Wednesday, March 10. Mr. Godbe delivered a summary of those results and disclosed the exact wording of survey questions when asked, but did not provide The Almanac with a copy of the exact questions and responses.

The survey was conducted in January via phone interviews of 400 people. It cost "in the ballpark" of $25,000, according to both Mr. Bohannon and Mr. Godbe.

At the beginning and end of the poll, the same percentage of people said they "supported" the project: 70 percent. In between, pollsters asked a series of questions, designed to simulate public debate, and to inform "communication" efforts, according to Mr. Godbe.

The information the survey provided on the project was couched in a series of hypothetical questions: Would you be much more likely to support the project if you knew thus and such? Somewhat more likely? Less likely? etc. It left the environmental consequences of the project somewhat vague, asking people whether they would be less likely to support the project if they knew it would produce "thousands" of car trips and "tons" of greenhouse gas emissions.

In general, the results of the recent survey did not vary significantly from those of the 2009 poll, though by the end of the 2010 survey there was a statistically significant increase over the 2009 results in the number of people voicing "strong support" for the project, according to Mr. Godbe.

Prior to the poll, the Bohannon company conducted two focus group sessions: one for project supporters, and one for project opponents. Mr. Bohannon gave a brief, anecdotal description of those sessions, saying that he and others who watched them from behind a two-way mirror observed a noticeable softening among opponents when they realized that the project site is east of U.S. 101.

Those sessions informed the questions asked in the poll, according to Mr. Godbe.

Mr. Godbe emphasized that the survey was not a "push poll" -- a term that describes a poll whose purpose is to sway voter opinion, rather than record it.

"It's really easy for somebody who opposes a project ... to say, 'well, this is just a push poll,'" he said. "That's yet another campaign tactic that is just not true. The purpose is to find out what voters' priorities are, so we have to ask questions, and those questions have to have a point of view."

Asked whether he had considered bringing the city in on coming up with the questions, Mr. Bohannon said he took issue with the fact that people would discount its results, just because a developer commissioned it. He observed that city staff includes land-use experts but not polling experts, and said the poll is primarily for the company's use.

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