When Pols Get Polled

This week a coalition of labor unions unveiled the results of the first serious  poll of San Jose’s mayoral election, which means it’s as good a time as any to remind readers that the people behind a poll should be a critical factor in analyzing the results. It’s also important to remember this simple truth: The way you ask a question has a huge impact on the response.

Want to know what I mean? Follow along as I recount a phone call I received last week from a different pollster on the same race. I won’t bore you with my responses, because they’re not important. Besides, the questions tell you all you need to know.

The survey began with me frantically opening a Google doc to take notes while the caller waited on the other end—somewhat impatiently. (For a political operative, getting polled is like winning the lottery, and I didn’t want to miss a single word.) When I was ready to roll, the caller quickly dove into key issues facing our city. I was asked to rank pre-selected issues in terms of their priority. All of the usual suspects were included—public safety, parks, libraries, economic development—but two stood out.

First was “restoring the police burglary unit.” This has been a recent cause célèbre of Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, and it was the initial sign as to the poll’s benefactor. The second was “government that is open, honest, and accessible to all.” While this is not an issue championed by any one candidate, it’s interesting to note that it’s still a concern almost a decade after Mayor Chuck Reed came to power on the back of his 34 reforms for open government in San Jose.

The caller then segued into a long, awkward preamble laying out the background of 2010’s Measures V and W, which changed binding arbitration rules for San José police and fire fighters, and asked me if those measures were “the right thing to do.” This seemed to me an odd question since 2012’s Measure B is far and away the trending topic of the day when it comes to labor issues at City Hall. But it makes sense when one considers that Vice Mayor Nguyen was the “swing vote” to put Measures V and W on the ballot in the first place.

Next, I was given background information on all of the candidates, including key campaign proposals, experience in local government and education history. While the description of every candidate was thorough and accurate based on my knowledge of the race, this section removed all doubt as to the poll’s origin. First, of all the candidates, Vice Mayor Nguyen’s platform was provided in excruciating detail, right down to her five-point plan for San Jose. Then, after asking which candidate I support, the caller asked if my opinion would change if Mr. Waite dropped out of the race, then if Mr. Waite and District 8 Councilmember Rose Herrera dropped out.

At this point, it was clear as day that Vice Mayor Nguyen’s campaign had paid for the poll. She would be the largest beneficiary of Councilmember Herrera’s exit as the only woman left in the race. And her ties to GOP-friendly consultant Victor Ajlouny would mean a potential boost for Nguyen if Waite—the only Republican in the race—stepped aside. (Of course, Waite has yet to make his candidacy official.)

The poll then transitioned to my opinion of various “special interests” that would do “whatever they can to have an impact on the outcome” of the race. The groups listed would nonplus anyone with cursory knowledge of local elections. But when it came to my opinion of prominent individuals in San Jose politics, only Mayor Reed was mentioned. Reed, of course, has been a key supporter of Nguyen’s since the failed attempt to recall her from office in 2009. The two also share the services of Mr. Ajlouny. If the mayor were to endorse in this race, the smart money is on his chosen vice mayor.

Now, because most people reading this article will be “inside baseball” types who don’t need a lesson in reading between the lines, it could easily go overlooked how polls are received by the great majority of folks out there with limited engagement in local politics. Indeed, a poll like this might be the only time a San Jose voter receives information on the mayor’s race. Questions can be manipulated to produce a desired result, and those results can be used to drive campaign spending, particularly by experienced consultants who stand to reap the financial benefits. I know this because I’m one of them.

But I also like to believe that our politics, our campaigns and our government would be better served by an honest dialogue based on facts rather than the cynical approach taken by many of my brethren, including those who crafted this poll.

One Comment

  1. A good campaign will not skew results but will release positive results. If they do not release even part of the results, the poll probably doesn’t indicate a positive result. That said, no good consultant is looking at a poll simply to make themselves feel good. You want a poll that gives the worst possible case–of course, the key to that last sentence was “good consultant”.

    The most unethical thing a pollster or consultant can do is give their candidate false hope for a positive result–ask Mitt Romney.

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