A pollster under oath!? Now that’s a situation we’d love to see replicated with every dubious occupation behind the scenes of our country’s politics — a consultant, fundraiser, or campaign manager put under oath and forced to answer questions on the every day spin, lying, cheating, massaging of numbers, and overall dishonesty that runs rampart behind the scenes in high stakes, big money American political contests.
In May 2012, former Al Gore and John Edwards pollster Hank Hickman took the stand in the federal trial of Edwards examining the potential abuse of campaign finances which may have been paid to Edwards’ mistress. Mistresses? Ho hum, been there, seen that before in American politics… but a pollster under oath? Now that could get interesting… as Politico recently reported:
Under oath, Hickman admitted that in the final weeks of Edwards’s 2008 bid, Hickman cherry-picked public polls to make the candidate seem viable, promoted surveys that Hickman considered unreliable, and sent e-mails to campaign aides, Edwards supporters and reporters which argued that the former senator was still in the hunt —even though Hickman had already told Edwards privately that he had no real chance of winning the Democratic nomination.
“They were pounding on me for positive information. You know, where is some good news we can share with people? We were monitoring all these polls and I was sending the ones that were most favorable because [campaign aides] wanted to share them with reporters,” Hickman testified on May 14 at the trial in Greensboro, N.C. “We were not finding very much good news and I was trying to give them what I could find.”
Hickman testified that when circulating the polls, he didn’t much care if they were accurate. “I didn’t necessarily take any of these as for—as you would say, for the truth of the matter. I took them more as something that could be used as propaganda for the campaign,” the veteran pollster said.
Interestingly, we’ve seen a similar dog and pony show play out in the 2012 election, as the Conservative political media sphere has decried recent polling trends showing that Mitt Romney’s fallen behind since the start of convention season, especially in crucial swing states that will make or break his Electoral College chances. Publicly, the Romney campaign staff, surrogates, and conservative pundits have been decrying the polls for their “liberal bias,” and “sampling problems,” but internally, the scene has to be more resigned and somber as pollsters furiously crunch new numbers to try and determine a strategic path to victory in November.
Just to underscore how unreliable and easily manipulated the “science” of “polling” really is, here’s one more quote from Mr. Hickman on how he described the spin he employed for then candidate Edwards:
Hickman also indicated that senior campaign staffers knew many of the polls were poorly done and of little value. “We didn’t take these dog and cat and baby-sitter polls seriously… They were being inundated with bad news. I didn’t have to give them bad news. I was trying to pick out morsels, you know, acorns. Out of a big stack of acorns, I was trying to pick out a few good ones that they could pass along to other people, you know, to keep them working…”
Cats, dogs, acorns, and baby sitters… oh my! So what does this mean for the science political polling at large? As critical, independent observers we know that while poll averages are usually reliable on the whole, individual polls are so easily manipulated that there’s really no way for an average voter to make any sense of daily results announced by the media in their pre-election frenzy. For instance, in a competitive and well covered Florida House race between first term Tea Party Congressman Allen West and his Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, both campaigns released polls this week that had their respective candidate in the lead by a comfortable margin. First, West’s campaign released numbers showing he was up 52-41%, but just days later, Murphy’s campaign released poll results showing him leading 52-43%. Clearly, both Murphy and West aren’t going to get 52% of the vote on November 6th, although some would argue stranger things have happened in Florida (hanging chads, anyone?).
While those “favorable” poll numbers from both side may spur fundraising and volunteering efforts, they’re certainly not both accurate within one shared margin of error, and that raises questions about the sampling methods employed by pollsters like these and Mr. Hickman behind the scenes; massaging and manipulating political data every which way to produce desirable outcomes. Independent voters need to be aware that while poll averages are accurate, this is only because both partisan sides cancel each other’s innacuracies out!
So if you weren’t already, remember to take individual poll numbers with several grains of salt, especially if they come from a “Democratic” or “Republican” firm. Otherwise, you might just end up with a handful of bad acorns.