Don’t believe everything the pollsters say
Back in the bad old days of political polls vs.the press, we would get little snippets of a poll leaked to us by a candidate's operative and we would rush to get it into print.
I recall guys from the back room slipping me four numbers scribbled on the back of a matchbook, and creating an entire story from it.
Since then, most of us have taken a pledge of sorts to be on the up and up with polls. The reason journalists should be careful with polls is that they involve real numbers, and numbers imply that you have an actual, measurable something to report on.
Recently U.S. Rep. Ed Case's campaign started bandying about two carefully selected sets of numbers from pollster Barbara Ankersmit, whom he hired to help in his effort to unseat Sen. Dan Akaka. She said Case and Akaka were just about tied in an "If the election were held today, who would you vote for" question.
Case asked Ankersmit to tell the respondents that Case is much younger than Akaka, and there could be problems if the veteran senator was unable to finish his term and an appointee had to fill the vacancy. Then Case had the horse-race question asked again. The poll then had Case slightly ahead of Akaka. It wasn't so much that Akaka or Case moved, but the questions caused a twitch among the undecided.
Several news media outlets reported all this as big stuff. It wasn't anything except a little bit of early campaign jujitsu.
Veteran Honolulu pollster Don Clegg recalls that in at least one previous campaign his candidate took an early lead. Clegg wrote up the good poll as an internal staff memo.
"We stamped it 'Confidential' and then papered the town with it. It looked like someone had found some secret information, but we had a reason for releasing it," Clegg said.
Another pollster who has been running campaigns and taking polls for 30 years tells me he hears that many established Democrats think Akaka is going to win easily. So, he speculates, perhaps the Case poll would counter that perceived slide.
Releasing a poll showing the race is neck-and-neck helps with donations, keeps campaign workers excited and corrects the impression that the candidate is losing, my pollster said.
The Associated Press and other news organizations recognize the self-serving nature of such polls and have a checklist of information needed before they run with a candidate's poll.
Items omitted from the Case poll but required by the AP include the wording of all questions, the order asked, and who was selected and how.
One way out of this problem would be do what is done in some states. It is not uncommon for the journalism department at a major university to take political polls independent of the politicians and the news media. A credible series of polls run by one of our universities would go a long way toward keeping both the news media and the politicians on the up and up.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org