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Independent polling rare in Arizona

Independent polling rare in ArizonaIndependent polling in Arizona is in short supply, leaving residents guessing on some of the hottest races in the state.

No independent polling has been released in competitive races in Arizona’s 1st, 2nd and 9th Congressional districts. During the blockbuster Republican primary between Congressmen Ben Quayle and David Schweikert, the only polling available to the public was released by the campaigns or their allies.

And even in the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Richard Carmona and Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, most of the public polling has come from firms known for autodial polls and partisan leanings, such as Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports.

Anyone trying to figure out how President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are faring in swing states like Florida and Ohio can check a bevy of polls conducted by massive media organizations, universities and others. But any Arizonan trying to get an idea of whether Vernon Parker or Kyrsten Sinema is leading in the 9th Congressional District is out of luck.

“I wish we had an independent polling process, but you’d have to have some kind of a sponsorship … some kind of commercial sponsors or something or it would be just prohibitive,” said Tucson pollster Margaret Kenski.

Even Nate Silver, The New York Times’ baseball statistician-turned- electoral-guru, wrote in October, “Arizona could certainly use more high-quality polling,” especially in regard to the U.S. Senate race.

Many observers attribute the lack of public polling in Arizona, at least in part, to a lack of ability or interest by media organizations that have faced shrinking revenues and dwindling circulation over the years.

Tempe-based pollster Michael O’Neil said independent polling has suffered as news organizations like The Arizona Republic and television stations have cut back.

“They think we’ll get a better understanding of our community by showing us an occasional car chase than understanding what people think. They think that’s important. And heck, I’ve done television news market research. And you know what? They’re probably not wrong,” O’Neil said.

Independent polling in Arizona used to be more commonplace. In the 1980s, 1990s and even a bit in the 2000s, The Republic commissioned polls on statewide races and ballot initiatives.

John Leach, a former managing editor of The Republic, said the paper used to commission about a half dozen polls per year in the late 1980s. But the market research department that handled the paper’s polling was eliminated when Gannett Company bought the paper in 2000, and polling has been scarce since then, he said.

“Cost is always a matter of priorities,” Leach said.

Kenski said the Arizona Daily Star and television station KVOA in Tucson used to hire her to poll important public issues. But that hasn’t happened since 2006, she said.

“Newspapers are hard up, so we’re not doing much of that,” she said.

Republican political consultant Chris Baker agreed that many news organizations no longer view political polling as being worth the money.

“I think a lot of it is driven by a couple of factors,” Baker said. “I think, number one, polling costs money. I think another factor is that as much as politics are of interest to (Arizona Capitol Times’) readership and to people like myself, more so anymore there’s a perception that politics like this aren’t too terribly interesting to readers or viewers.”

In the eastern United States, institutions such as Quinnipiac University have a strong tradition of polling, Baker said. But that is largely absent in Arizona.

“We just don’t have regional polling entities that tend to focus on these races like they typically do back East,” Baker said.

Until a few years ago, Arizona still had independent polling coming from two of its universities. Arizona State University’s Bruce Merrill conducted polls with KAET, while Northern Arizona University’s Fred Solop conducted the Grand Canyon State Poll from the university’s Social Research Laboratory.

But while universities like Quinnipiac have invested large sums of money into their polling operations, Solop said Arizona universities have cut back just like media outlets have, especially as polling has gotten more expensive due to increased cell phone use and decreasing response rates. NAU decommissioned the Social Research Laboratory in 2009, Solop said. And Merrill’s Cronkite-Eight Poll ended the same year.

“The universities just aren’t as active on this front as they used to be,” Solop said. “Polling is expensive. It’s resource intensive. And I would argue that over the years it gets more expensive.”

Merrill said ASU’s budget has been cut by about 40 percent in the past five years, and the polling operations it conducted for KAET and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication were simply victims of financial priorities.

“Those were about the only public polling anyone was doing. There’s obviously a huge need for somebody to do that, that’s not tied to either party or candidates or anything,” Merrill said.

Some national firms still conduct auto-dial polls in Arizona, as do some local consultants. But many question the results and methodology of those polls. O’Neil said live-caller polls are expensive — a good live-caller poll costs as much as $25,000 or more, he said — while “robo-polls” are extremely cheap.

“What they do is pure crap. It’s so cheap it’s virtually free, because there’s no interviewers, they don’t worry about cell phones, they don’t worry about whether the call is answered by your kid, your dog, your neighbor,” O’Neil said.

Kenski said Rasmussen does good work. But robo-polls generally aren’t that reliable, she said.

“I caught my 5-year-old grandson answering a poll the other day,” Kenski said.

Chuck Coughlin, a lobbyist and Republican consultant, said his firm, HighGround, is thinking about getting into the polling game. With well- known Arizona pollsters such as Kenski and Merrill nearing retirement, Coughlin said there’s a need for nonpartisan polling here.

HighGround commissioned a poll in September from Oregon-based Moore Information on the presidential race, U.S. Senate race and Proposition 121, a ballot measure that would create a “top-two” primary system in Arizona.

“You may see more of that in the future,” Coughlin said.

But there’s a lot of cost involved, he said. “If we could get somebody to fund that, that would be great.”

Ultimately, the lack of public polling in Arizona is a trend that may not be reversed. Merrill hoped that ASU might get back into polling once the economy rebounds and its budget is in better shape.

Solop wasn’t as optimistic.

“Absent the universities saying this is a priority, this is important, this makes a contribution to the public and the civic conversation and we support that — absent that initiative, we’re not going to see the independent polling come back to Arizona,” Solop said.

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