Lies, Damn Lies and Campaign Polls

The coincidence of two inside baseball polling stories — nationally, the Public Policy Polling-Nate Silver dustup last week and, here in Texas, much less prominently, state Sen. Dan Patrick campaign’s excited release of an internal poll — reminds us that with election season fast approaching, people of all political stripes will find ways to praise or criticize polls and pollsters for sometimes real, sometimes obscure, but most often strategic (read: self-interested) reasons.

What makes a story about Silver’s broadside against PPP possible is an ever-expanding niche market of political junkies — and the specialized media that feeds it — that find news in polling results and especially conflicts over polling practice. Interested parties, in particular campaign consultants attentive to this dynamic, find a ready market to turn unwelcome polling results into stories about conflicts over methodology and/or bias on the part of the pollster. The release and contradiction of internal polls becomes as much a strategy for shaping public opinion as it is a means for measuring it.

The most recent examples come from the competitive four-way race for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Earlier this week, Patrick, a lieutenant governor candidate, released selected results from an internal poll. The message: Current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst “has taken a major hit,” and Patrick is “building support in a two-man race.”

Does the data support this conclusion? Well, it could. The release claimed that among likely Republican primary voters (a difficult group to define), the percentage saying that Dewhurst deserves re-election has dropped 4 points, from 41 percent in May to 37 percent in September. Similarly, Patrick’s polling shows him making gains in the trial ballot, up 4 points since May from 14 to 18 percent.

But — and this is a very big but — the margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. In other words, both the drop in support and the gain in the trial ballot fall within the margin of error. A more accurate read of the data would be to say that Dewhurst might be losing support (though he might not), and Patrick might be gaining support (though he might not).

However one chooses to present the margin of error, one result in the poll is unambiguous: Dewhurst is still the front-runner on the trial ballot by a large margin, with 40 percent of the vote — according to Patrick’s own polling. (Not that Dewhurst hasn’t been on the other side of highly strategic releases of internal polling.)

Another example from the GOP primary for lieutenant governor came in an email from candidate Todd Staples last month that exclaimed, “Today, Texas Weekly released an ‘Inside Intelligence’ poll reflecting our team taking the lead in the race for Lt. Governor!”

This was “a lead” in a race among the predictions of a couple of hundred people, at best — beyond that, the email was fundamentally misleading. As most Tribune readers will know, the reality of both this poll and the situation it purports to describe are pretty distant from the implications of that email. The “Inside Intelligence” survey calls on a hand-picked collection of close observers and participants in Texas politics (here’s a recent example). In no way is this poll scientific or representative of any larger group. It shows what a self-selected group of (admittedly knowledgeable) people thinks about a set of questions.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, also a candidate for lite guv, replied with a characteristically spirited and altogether more accurate mailing based on the Inside Intelligence item — “great news … I’m not the leading candidate among Austin’s network of lobbyists and political consultants!”

These various attempts at messaging by insiders with a stake in elections are examples of how paid campaign professionals and candidates use polls in self-interested but unreliable ways. This practice is far from new — consultants calling editors and writers to begin whisper campaigns about their own “internal numbers” or about the weaknesses of unfriendly results has become an expected professional ritual.

The increasing audience for polling related information has grown, creating an opportunity for interested parties to connect directly with that audience. The spread of social media and micro-targeting has transformed the time-honored practice of spinning editors and professionals into a strategically targeted barrage of emails, tweets and Facebook posts bypassing the editors and going straight to interested readers. As campaign season revs up, whether you’re getting the campaigns’ narratives via news stories or directly in your feed, it’s best to look at their messages with a critical eye — and if you’re going to trust, be sure to verify.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Keywords: 2014 election