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Political Dark Arts - The Pollsters


If political campaigns are horse races—then consider public opinion polls one way to set the odds.But campaigns create and use polls for much more than the neck-and-neck numbers you hear on the news. As part of our series on the ‘dark arts’ of politics,  Alex Keefe explains:

AMBI: (phone rings)

Maybe you’ve already gotten one of these calls this election season.

TAPE: Hello, this is a short political poll...(fade under)...

It’s your chance to weigh in.

TAPE: If you’d vote for Bruce Rauner, press one on your phone now. If you’d vote for Pat Quinn, press two on your phone.

But what happens with this information - and exactly who is behind all this polling?

DURHAM: He sounds like a nice guy because he truly is a nice guy.  It’s kind of a Everyman type of voice.

This is Gregg Durham - who takes polls for politicians, news outlets and interest groups.

And he’s not talking about himself - but about the guy who voices his automated polls.

Durham says a good poll starts with good audio.

DURHAM: No Noise, no mouth sounds.

KEEFE: Like (lip smacking)

DURHAM: Absolutely. People will hang up if you do things like that.

And getting people to stay on the phone [line ] has become a pretty big part of our democratic process.

Public opinion polling isn’t just used to predict who will win an election.

It’s [become an integral cog in] oils  the modern campaign machine - helping it [to ] test different talking points, and [to ] form [a ] messages most likely to influence you on election day.

But all of that depends on the accuracy of the poll.

Durham points to the super-tight 20-10 Republican gubernatorial primary - where State Senators Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard were neck-and-neck right till the end.

DURHAM: I was Mr. Dillard’s pollster, and I had to make that call and say, you’ve got a problem here. This guy’s catching you. Brady won, and -

KEEFE: 193 votes, as I recall.

DURHAM: Yeah, and - fact, we did the math and they said, how close was it? And we thought, plus or minus 200, 250 votes.

So how do pollsters get so dead-on?

BOWEN: Think about how a pond would look with a buncha fish in it.

Tom Bowen - a Democratic campaign strategist - says the absolute most important thing for accuracy is that the sample in the poll mirrors the make-up of the larger electorate - ideally, of the people who will actually vote on election day.

Hence, the fish.

BOWEN: If you grabbed a whole buncha fish outta the pond, you’d have a pretty good idea of what the fish look like.

A good idea - Bowen says - but NOT a statistically accurate sample...

BOWEN: Because some fish are on the bottom. Maybe they’ve just eaten and are resting, and some fish are hiding.

So before they blast out any phone calls - pollsters spend big money on demographic data to learn as much as they can about you, based on where you live.

After the poll, they run their results through a complex math equation - to smooth out any imperfections.

And the trophy for campaigns is NOT the horse-race number they may release to the public.

It’s the drilled-down data you usually don’t get to see - the stuff that’s used to craft the all-important campaign message.

BOWEN: It’s not about telling a voter something you want them to know. It’s about reminding them about something they already know.

For example: In 2009, Bowen was running the congressional campaign for County Commissioner Mike Quigley - when he saw some surprising poll numbers.

They showed voters didn’t really recognize Quigley by name...but they DID recognize County Board President Todd Stroger - and they didn’t like him.

So Bowen put together this ad...

BOWEN: Oh, that’s it! (mac bleeps)

VIDEO: Who’s been taking on Todd Stroger? Mike Quigley. It’s Quigley who’s fought Stroger’s tax increases. Now Quigley’s the candidate...(fade under)

BOWEN: One thing you’ll notice about that ad, besides the fact that Todd Stroger was right in the front of it, was that Mike Quigley’s name was used six times. ... So in order to stand out. This was sort of what the poll told us to run.

Quigley won.

1) But there are limits to what pollsters will do for a win.

2) But sometimes, winning means knowing what NOT to talk about.

Democratic Campaign strategist Terrie Pickerill recalls a race where her candidate was late in paying property taxes - but the opponent had some ethical problems.

She polled to see which would hurt more.

PICKERILL: People just didn’t care as much about just paying property taxes on time, but they really cared that this guy had ethical issues.

So when her client was attacked over the property tax thing - and wanted to explain it - she told them to stay quiet.

PICKERILL: It’s like, look at the poll! This is much worse for him than it is for us. Like, explaining is losing, so what we wanna do is say, the real issue is his ethics.

But there are also ethical issues for the pollsters.

McGRATH: Good pollsters don’t tell a candidate what to say.

Jason McGrath has done polling for Chicago Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley, among others.

And he disputes this criticism that politicians use polls simply to parrot back what voters want to hear.

McGRATH: The political graveyard is scattered with failed candidates who try to be something they weren’t. And it’s not in our interest to use a poll to tell somebody to be something they’re not.

McGrath says voters can sense when candidates are faking it.

And dishonesty - doesn’t poll very well.

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