Magazine article Politics Magazine

Out-of-Control Numbers: What to Do When Public Polling Becomes the Story

Magazine article Politics Magazine

Out-of-Control Numbers: What to Do When Public Polling Becomes the Story

Article excerpt

Public poll results make journalists happy. Candidates are winning, losing or in a dead heat. Approval numbers are up or down. There are statistics and charts to back it all up. Plus, the frequency of public polls is increasing as new polling companies pop up--just as the frequency of story deadlines is increasing (although, unfortunately, not because new journalism jobs pop up).

Public poll results do not make happy consultants, however. What makes a good story for a news outlet tends to send campaigns into overdrive. "Candidates will quote polls if they think it will help their candidate and a week later they will criticize the same poll if they think that it is hurting their candidate," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, one of the most respected public pollsters out there. "They will attack the mother of the pollster, the grandmother of the pollster, the ethnicity of the pollster--politics is vicious."

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Public polls usually ask different types of questions from campaign polling and often yield significantly different results. On the state and local level, it seems as though new public pollsters are a dime a dozen and many employ smaller sample sizes and methodologies that many consultants question. The biggest complaint from frustrated campaign consultants: too often reporters don't go beyond the top-line results, which means a bad poll can get front-page treatment.

Brad Todd, of On Message Media, says pollsters often used by media organizations aren't invested in particular races in the same way that campaigns are. "Public pollsters don't have the pressure to get the race right," he says. "You see a lot more uneven polling in public polls than you do in the private campaign polls because they don't have a stake in the campaign--it matters to them to get a story."

The advice from most pollsters is to keep an eye on the results, but don't let them run your campaign. Campaign polls, which are usually kept out of public view, are most important in determining strategy. "The results you get in public polling, by and large, is pretty feeble stuff," says Vic Fingerhut, a longtime Democratic pollster. "It's kind of useful, but they don't do anything near what we do in terms of very specific use of language and sophisticated message testing." Consider the numbers "freebie data," Fingerhut says, "I look at it, and it's useful stuff to have, but I don't normally react to it."

But, in the new media world, campaigns can't let news stories based on poll results slide by without comment. …

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