By Kevin Binversie
Independent polls show Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leading opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by 6 to 7 points in the June 5 recall vote. So what’s the public to do with Barrett’s own data — polls (here and here) that show the recall is a statistical dead heat?
Veteran campaign staffers on the left and right will tell you Barrett’s internal polling suggests his campaign is dead.
Sometimes, the release of such internal polling is meant to bolster the sagging spirits of campaign staffers and volunteers looking into the oblivion of total defeat. I once worked on a campaign in which, days before election day, we field staffers were told that our last internal tracking poll had us tied with our opponent.
We were ecstatic. And then we lost by 8 points.
But don’t take my word for it. Kristen Soltis, director of policy research and pollster for the Washington, D.C.-based Winston Group and contributor to the Huffington Post’s Pollster.com, defended the Barrett campaign and We Are Wisconsin pollsters. She called Stan Greenberg and Fred Yang — pollsters for We Are Wisconsin and the Barrett Campaign, respectively — “very good pollsters who have rock-solid reputations on the Democratic side of the aisle.”
Then she offered sage counsel to the average consumer of internal polling data.
“You have to remind yourself that pollsters only crunch the numbers,” Soltis told me. “It’s the people who are pushing these numbers out who have an agenda they must be served.”
And the people “pushing these numbers out,” she noted, work for a campaign — a “campaign that is only releasing the good news at this point. If their internals are that different from the numbers coming from outside data, the lack of additional information pertaining to their numbers ought to be questioned.”
But it’s not just the attempt at manipulating which has increased skepticism about any internal polling number release; it is the complete lack of substantial data attached to it.
That “additional information” — for example, the questions pollsters ask and the order in which they ask them — is essential. When most third-party polling is released from a university or professional polling firm, such as Rasmussen Reports or Public Policy Polling, they provide what are called “internals.”
Internals are the guts of the poll, and they measure the basic demographics of would-be voters. Very good polling is generally very thorough with this data. Some have such depth that, if asked, their pollsters could probably give you the information on what percentage of rural, white-male voters between the ages of 40 to 50, making less than $50,000, are likely to feel on a number of issues.
Now imagine numbers like that, but for every demographic group under the sun.
No surprise: Neither the Barrett campaign nor We Are Wisconsin has released any internals with their polling memo releases of the past couple of days.
In the absence of such internals, campaigns can cook the books. Speaking to Politico earlier this week, Bismarck-based GOP strategist and pollster Pat Finken admitted it’s easy to manufacture poll numbers for desperate campaigns.
“What I suspect happens in a lot of these is that they release the second question after they’ve tested all the positives for your candidate and negatives of the opponent,” Finken said. “You’ve got to see what questions precede it. The swing from the front to the back of that questionnaire can be 10 points.”
Finken told Politico he could easily massage numbers he had from April that put Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota up 7 points in his U.S. Senate race against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and make it look like Berg was up 15 depending on the sample size and how he phrased questioning.
Sometimes the release of internal polling serves fundraising. Sometimes it’s to generate headlines. Most of the time — as in the Barrett campaign — it’s simply a blatant attempt to manipulate the public with phony numbers.
So it’s best to be careful when you hear about internal polling this late in a campaign. Otherwise you look foolish — like the pollsters behind the Shelly Moore campaign in last summer’s recall against state Sen. Shelia Harsdorf, R-Hudson. Two weeks before Election Day, they produced an internal polling memo showing Moore up 2 points.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.