Friday, January 15, 2010

Don't Shoot the Pollster

Attacks on Scott Rasmussen and Fox News show a disturbing attitude toward dissent.

Polling is both an art and a science, but recently it's also become a subject of political intimidation.
One shot was fired by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Dec. 8, when he dismissed Gallup's daily tracking of President Obama's job approval. It had hit a record low of 47%, and Mr. Gibbs called the results meaningless:
"If I was a heart patient and Gallup was my EKG I'd visit my doctor. If you look back I think five days ago. . . there was an 11 point spread, now there's a one point spread. . . I'm sure a six-year-old with a crayon could do something not unlike that. I don't put a lot of stake in, never have, in the EKG that is the daily Gallup trend. I don't pay a lot of attention to meaninglessness."
Polling is a science because it requires a range of sampling techniques to be used to select a sample. It is an art because constructing a sample and asking questions is something that requires skill, experience and intellectual integrity. The possibility of manipulation—or, indeed, intimidation—is great.
A recent case in point is what has happened to Scott Rasmussen, an independent pollster we both work with, who has an unchallenged record for both integrity and accuracy. Mr. Rasmussen correctly predicted the 2004 and 2008 presidential races within a percent, and accurately called the vast majority of contested Senate races in 2004 and 2006. His work has sometimes been of concern for Republicans, particularly when they were losing congressional seats in 2004 and 2006.
Most recently, Mr. Rasmussen has been the leader in chronicling the decline in the public's support for President Obama. And so he has been the target of increasingly virulent attacks from left-wing bloggers seeking to undermine his credibility, and thus muffle his findings. A Politico piece, "Low Favorables: Democrats Rip Rasmussen," reported on the attacks from blogs like the Daily Kos, Swing State Project, and Media Matters.
"Rasmussen Caught With Their Thumb on the Scale," cried the Daily Kos last summer. "Rasmussen Reports, You Decide," the blog Swing State Project headlined not long ago in a play on the Fox News motto.
"I don't think there are Republican polling firms that get as good a result as Rasmussen does," Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow with the progressive research outfit Media Matters, said in a Jan. 2 Politico article. "His data looks like it all comes out of the RNC."
Liberals have also noted that Rasmussen's daily presidential tracking polls have consistently placed Mr. Obama's approval numbers around five percentage points lower than other polling outfits throughout the year. This is because Rasmussen surveys likely voters, who are now more Republican in orientation than the overall electorate. (Gallup and other pollsters survey the entire adult population.) On other key issues like health care, Rasmussen's numbers have been echoed by everyone else.
Mr. Rasmussen, who is avowedly not part of the Beltway crowd in Washington, has been willing to take on issues like ethics and corruption in ways no other pollsters have been able to do. He was also one of the first pollsters to stress people's real fear of the growing size of government, the size of the deficit, and the concern about spending at a time when these issues were not really on Washington's radar screen.
The reaction against him has been strident and harsh. He's been called an adjunct of the Republican Party when in fact he has never worked for any political party. Nor has he consulted with any candidates seeking elective office.
The attacks on Rasmussen and Gallup follow an effort by the White House to wage war on Fox News and to brand it, as former White House Director of Communications Anita Dunn did, as "not a real news organization." The move backfired; in time, other news organizations rallied around Fox News. But the message was clear: criticize the White House at your peril.
As pollsters for two Democratic presidents who served before Barack Obama, we view this unprecedented attempt to silence the media and to attack the credibility of unpopular polling as chilling to the free exercise of democracy.
This is more than just inside baseball. As practicing political consultants, both of us have seen that the established parties try to stifle dissent among their political advisers and consultants. The parties go out of their way to try to determine in advance what questions will be asked and what answers will be obtained to reinforce existing party messages. The thing most feared is independence, which is what Mr. Rasmussen brings.
Mr. Gibbs's comments and the recent attempts by the Democratic left to muzzle Scott Rasmussen reflect a disturbing trend in our politics: a tendency to try to stifle legitimate feedback about political concerns—particularly if the feedback is negative to the incumbent administration.
Mr. Caddell served as a pollster for President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Schoen, who served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton, is the author of "The Political Fix" just out from Henry Holt.


No comments:

Post a Comment