Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Don’t Believe the Hype ... or Everything That You Read

By Stuart Rothenberg

Periodically (it seems more often these days, actually), I come across some really silly political stuff that screams out for attention. Here are four examples. Caveat emptor!

Exhibit No. 1: A Feb. 17 survey of 500 likely Wisconsin voters by Rasmussen Reports.

Rasmussen is an automated poll that does not include live interviewers, and, as anyone who follows polling knows, it’s highly controversial, in part because of the large number of surveys conducted by the firm and the widespread belief that the firm favors Republicans.

The numbers in the Wisconsin survey that stuck out like a sore thumb were the favorable and unfavorable ratings of Republican Senate hopeful Dave Westlake. According to the survey, 33 percent of those polled had a favorable view of Westlake, while 31 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.

What’s so weird about that? Well, Westlake isn’t exactly a public figure.

The self-described “entrepreneur and small businessman” went to West Point and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, but as far as I can tell, he has no political experience and hasn’t spent any money to get known. His year-end Federal Election Commission report showed that at the end of 2009 he had raised $33,000, spent $31,000 and had less than $3,000 in the bank.

Dave Westlake probably is a nice guy, and I wish him well. But there is no way that two out of three likely Wisconsin voters know enough about him to have an opinion of him (unless Rasmussen provided other information, such as party). And that’s what the favorable/unfavorable question is intended to produce — information about the person’s name identification and image.

In November, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling company, surveyed the Wisconsin Senate race and found Westlake’s ID at 2 percent favorable/9 percent unfavorable. Could Westlake’s name ID have skyrocketed from 11 percent to 64 percent from November to February? No, not without a statewide media blitz.

Exhibit No. 2: A Feb. 8 e-mail from Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff’s campaign touting his standing in recent Rasmussen polls.

Romanoff, a former Colorado Speaker, is challenging appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in this year’s Democratic primary, and given the political environment, anything is possible.

But there are two things about the e-mail that are ridiculous. First, Democratic strategists spend a good deal of time discrediting Rasmussen as a Republican pollster whose results rarely reflect reality. Yet, here is the Romanoff campaign basing its entire argument about Romanoff’s alleged electability on two Rasmussen surveys. Incredible.

And second, the argument that Romanoff is the stronger general election candidate because of the Rasmussen polls comes from Romanoff consultant Celinda Lake. Since Lake is herself a pollster, you’d think that she might refer to one of her own surveys, rather than the survey of another pollster. She doesn’t.

Exhibit No. 3: Rep. Joe Sestak (D) claims the White House offered him a job to get him out of the Pennsylvania Senate race.

Sestak’s assertion that he was offered a job by the administration isn’t shocking at all. It’s the media reaction to it that is.

What’s the big deal? This kind of thing happens all of the time. There is nothing immoral or unethical about it. It’s politics. The White House embraced Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) when he switched parties, and now they are trying to clear the primary field for him.

As news goes, it’s interesting but hardly shocking or outrageous. But it was treated as a big deal, not only by the Philadelphia newspapers but by the Associated Press and other newspapers and blogs.

Exhibit No. 4: All the hype about the Nevada Tea Party getting on the ballot and the likely candidacy of businessman Jon Ashjian.

News of the Tea Party’s ballot status in Nevada spread like wildfire. PoliticalWire reported on a Public Opinion Strategies poll by asserting that Ashjian “changes” the Nevada race, with Ashjian “helping” Sen. Harry Reid (D).

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee quoted highly regarded Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston as tweeting that Ashjian “could have huge impact” on the contest, and National Journal reported that Ashjian “could split conservative votes.”

CQ-Roll Call got caught up in the hype too, I must add.

First, as everyone who watched the New Jersey gubernatorial race last year should remember, Independent Chris Daggett received 5.8 percent of the vote, underperforming every survey from mid-September to Election Day.

Early polls always exaggerate the strength of third-party candidates, and there is every reason to believe that this is the case with the POS poll. (This is not a criticism of POS, which I continue to regard as one of the absolutely best survey research firms in the business.)

Second, only somebody with little background in polling would spend a lot of time at this point looking at general election ballot tests of candidates with dramatically unequal name identification.

A huge 94 percent of Nevada voters know enough about Harry Reid to have an opinion of him, while the comparable figure for the leading Republicans in the race is much lower. Sue Lowden is at 56 percent, Danny Tarkanian is at 52 percent and Sharron Angle is at 26 percent.

No matter what Ashjian draws in the hypothetical ballot tests, Reid is stuck between 37 percent and 39 percent of the vote in most polls, in the POS survey and in others. Until that changes, Ashjian will be a nonfactor in the race, and spending time on his potential is little more than wishful thinking by Democrats and media hype by reporters.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on CQPolitics.com on March 1, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.