August 18, 2013

Some political polls are designed to con us

Reprinted from Kentucky Roll Call newsletter, Aug. 15, 2013.

In the world of commerce, the Latin term caveat emptor means that a person who buys something is responsible for making sure that it is in good condition, works properly, etc. In English it’s called “buyer beware,” which applies equally to politics, especially advertising and polling. Consider the following. 

A July 23-24 poll by Republican pollster Wenzel Strategies put McConnell ahead of Alison Lundergan Grimes, 48-40; a week later, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report lowered its rating of a McConnell-Grimes matchup from “lean Republican” to “toss up,” and tweeted an explanation: “given that two polls show the race within the MOE and with Grimes ahead of McConnell in both, it moves to the Toss Up column.” 

What the tweet failed to mention is that one of the two polls was conducted by Grimes’ own pollster, and the other was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, for two Democratic groups opposing McConnell. 

It may surprise you that the respected Cook Report lowered its rating based on partisan polling, which by definition is done to con the public — by Ds and Rs — which the public accepts, when it’s done with finesse. 

Who to trust? The equally respected, nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report said, following Cook’s change, that it’s keeping the McConnell-Grimes race, “Republican favored” — two notches from “toss up.”