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Polls in governor's race too sketchy to count on


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POSTED: Wednesday, September 09, 2009

For political candidates the only question is: “;Who loves you?”;

Once love is assured, the upwardly mobile politician gets the word out to as many people as possible, giving rise to the election tactic of poll leaking.

In pre-Facebook days, the hopeful pol would have an aide scribble a few numbers on the back of a matchbook cover and slip them to the press. Reporters could fashion a “;sources only”; story with the leaked poll numbers speculating that candidate “;A”; was ahead of candidate “;X”; by 12 points and confident of victory. Candidate “;A”; job would then smile and say “;The only poll I believe in is on election day.”;

Recently Rep. Neil Abercrombie's staff was out front with its own poll, which showed him beating Mayor Mufi Hannemann in next year's race for governor by 12 percentage points, with a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Interesting numbers, but the Abercrombie campaign would not release the entire poll, nor would they give the wording on the questions.

Abercrombie also appeared on top in a June poll taken by Daily Kos, the vocal, liberal Democratic blog, which is about as neutral as Keith Olbermann or Fox News, As the Associated Press advises in its own stylebook: “;Be wary of polls paid for by candidates or interest groups; their release of poll results may be done selectively and is often a campaign tactic or publicity ploy.”;

To be fair in the leaked poll game, while Hannemann has not sent out his own poll, he was bragging earlier in the year that unspecified “;union polls”; had him leading Abercrombie in next year's race for governor.

We all love polls and rankings. The sports pages could not exist without “;top ten”; rankings and the news media has joined in the fun with online polls of all sorts. So how seriously should we take all this and what should we report?

Professor Larry Sabato, one of the nation's top political scientists and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, is urging consumers to dial back their faith in polls.

“;There are so many problems in polling today, including high refusal rates, that I never believe anything unless the result is replicated in several polls,”; Sabato said when I asked him last week about polls.

AP also cautions reporters not to say someone is leading unless the difference is twice the sampling error margin. If 4.5 is the margin of error, a candidate would need to be leading by more than 9 percentage points to be actually called a leader in the poll.

Or you can be smart and safe, make up your own mind and wait until election day.