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Many media outlets duped by bogus polls

Many media outlets duped by bogus polls

Regardless of what you may have read elsewhere, no one has a decisive lead in the GOP primary race to replace Congressman John Shadegg, who is retiring at the end of the year. There have been three “polls” released by candidates in the race so far, and none of them are worth a lick.

Nor are they worth reporting on as news – much less fact – yet there has been a disturbing trend in the Arizona political media to parrot the results of these “polls,” even though nothing about them should pass the smell test.

Take the “poll” results released by Jim Waring Feb. 11 that showed that 50 percent of CD3 voters would choose him, dwarfing his nearest competitor, Pamela Gorman, who pulled in about 27 percent. Local media foolishly pounced on the story and reported the numbers that were in the press release. The Arizona Guardian’s Dennis Welch wrote Waring had “a commanding lead,” James King at the Phoenix New Times unquestioningly wrote he “holds a double-digit lead” over his competition, and Arizona Republic national political reporter Dan Nowicki regurgitated the results that showed Waring has “a big early lead” in the race. Even nationally respected political news outlets like Real Clear Politics helped push the Waring camp’s fairy tale that he was the early favorite.

Only my colleague Luige del Puerto pointed out the truth behind the poll: Its numbers were fantastically incomplete, as nearly three-quarters of the 300 people polled were undecided.

The political media here has continued to irresponsibly report other bogus poll numbers in the race. A Feb. 25 “poll” of 1,000 voters released by Vernon Parker’s campaign showed he trailed Waring by one point, 16 percent to 17 percent, with Ben Quayle close behind at 15 percent. Unlike Waring’s poll, this one noted 41 percent of those surveyed were undecided, though that number is still alarmingly small for a poll conducted six months before a primary election in which none of the candidates are household names.

Once again, local media dutifully helped a candidate by reporting phony numbers. Welch at the Guardian and King at New Times even noted how different the results of the Parker and Waring polls were, yet they didn’t even attempt to explain why. King went so far as to attribute the drop to Quayle entering the race.

Yesterday, Waring’s campaign released another “poll” that should have been ignored. It wasn’t, as Welch once again wrote a dispatch that gave the survey – like the first, conducted by GOP campaign firm Summit Consulting Group – credibility it doesn’t deserve. He noted that the report’s authors acknowledged there were “a high number of undecided” voters, but didn’t seek out those numbers.

I left a message for Summit’s owner, Chad Willems, March 11 to find out those answers, but he didn’t return my call.

Arizona Capitol Times chose to cover none of those “polls,” outside of del Puerto writing about the flaws in the first one. Why? For starters, they wouldn’t release additional information about the polling, like the questions that were asked, demographic breakdowns of those surveyed and cross-tabs. Any valid poll will readily release that information, and an unwillingness to do so should set off warning sirens for journalists.

Those are important things for reporters to look for when evaluating polls, said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling. His firm works across the country and considered one of the more reputable pollsters.

“The No. 1 thing reporters should look for is transparency,” Jensen said.

More than anything else, the wording of the questions – all of them asked of respondents, not just the one or two cited in a press release – determines the validity of the polls. Did the poll include pass-throughs, where voters are told bits of information about each candidate to see how those surveyed react? Those are commonplace for internal campaign polls, as they can help shape strategy, but they don’t make for reliable results and should serve as a red flag for reporters.

The questions can also reveal if the poll is, in fact, a push-poll, which isn’t designed to produce valid numbers as much as it is aimed at poisoning the respondents’ views of a candidate by asking leading and unflattering questions about him or her.

Finding out who paid for the poll also is critical, said pollster Bob Moore of Oregon-based Moore Information. If a candidate has paid for it, then the numbers can’t be taken at face value, he said, and reporters should do everything they can to speak to the pollster about the results, not someone working with the campaign.

“The pollster may get some numbers that the campaign doesn’t like, and won’t release,” Moore said.

Unfortunately, it’s likely we will continue to see spurious poll results be reported as the campaign season drags on. Jensen said it is “very frustrating” for reputable pollsters to see obviously disingenuous – if not fraudulent – polls being swallowed hook, line and sinker by reporters who accept the results at face value.

“As long as that happens, people will continue to do it,” he said.

-By Jim Small

  1. Brian Murray
    Brian Murray03-12-2010

    Lincoln Responds to “Small” Editorial

    Facts are stubborn things, and unfortunately, are hard to ignore. Clearly we believe, as do our clients that the survey research conducted on their behalf is not “bogus.”

    Of course we didn’t know that Jim Small was now an expert pollster, after reviewing his bio on the Cap Times website we didn’t see pollster anywhere on there. Apparently a major concern was that having 41% of respondents unsure of who they were supporting was too low for Jim, he claims that this is “alarming” considering we are only six months from election day.

    What is the basis for this you ask, well he doesn’t tell us. He does quote an Oregon pollster who has limited experience in Arizona later in his rant. After taking a quick look at the Oregon pollster’s website we found in the race for governor of Oregon, for example, a poll was conducted fully 11 months before election-day, but the average undecided’s of the expert used was an astounding 23%! And in nearly each of the results he had posted, the survey samples were smaller than Lincoln’s and the margin of error was larger.

    Interesting to say the least, but even more troubling is how Jim reports on other polls as if they were the bible truth. For example, reporters in this town trip over themselves to discuss the vaunted “Eight Poll” conducted by Bruce Merrill, although within professional political circles many don’t take Merrill’s work too seriously. Here’s why.

    In the 2008 elections Merrill predicted these results just days before election-day:

    • McCain would win by 2% in Arizona, he actually won by 9%.
    • Arpaio would win by 21%, he actually won by 13%.
    • Thomas would win by 7%, he actually won by 7%.
    • Prop 102 would win by 7%, it actually won by 12%
    • Prop 202 would lose by 44%, it actually lost by 18%

    Still, this highly praised pollster was wrong 80% of the time, by an average of 9%.

    On the other side, Lincoln provided survey research for 5 different municipal elections last fall, and in each instance our polling accurately predicted the winner, within the margin of error, unlike Merrill. It’s why our clients pay for our services, and why we don’t just give it away like other firms and individuals. Jim, in the future please remember we are an award winning firm with multiple Pollies, and we have a combined 50 plus years of experience, run over 37 races for Congress, 8 gubernatorial campaigns, 5 U.S. Senate campaigns, and 4 campaigns for President.

    We believe our record speaks for itself.

    Most sincerely,

    Nathan Sproul, Partner
    Brian Murray, Partner
    Meghan Cox, Partner
    Jay McCleskey, Partner

  2. Richard

    Nathan Sproul has no credibility: “According to campaign finance records, a joint committee of the McCain-Palin campaign, the RNC and the the California Republican Party, made a $175,000 payment to the group Lincoln Strategy in June for purposes of “registering voters.” The managing partner of that firm is Nathan Sproul, a renowned GOP operative who has been investigated on multiple occasions for suppressing Democratic voter turnout, throwing away registration forms and even spearheading efforts to get Ralph Nader on ballots to hinder the Democratic ticket.

    In a letter to the Justice Department last October, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said that that Sproul’s alleged activities “clearly suppress votes and violate the law.”

  3. Richard

    From Boston Chronicle: “Sproul is currently under investigation by the Oregon Attorney General’s office, for altering the voter registration forms of several thousand students in that state. Whether the new numbers are in part mistaken, they represent a huge expense for the Republicans. Given Sproul’s history of serious electoral mischief, affecting countless Democratic voters in the last election, it is important that we ask some sober questions: Where did all that money come from? Why did the RNC suppress their real expenditures? And what exactly did Sproul do for all that pay? If we’re going to get some reasonable answers, the FEC must undertake a very thorough audit of the books.

  4. Richard

    Jay McCleskey also has no credibility. In NM he was called, “the hatchet man” because he was known to run smear campaigns against the opposition, and in one case, even started a whisper campaign!
    not to mention some questionable personal background, filed in the NM court system.

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