The Great Poll Scam, Part XIII: Reality Swings And Misses

Contrary to the impression some wrote about on various blogs, I never worked for the Emmer campaign.  Oh, I did a fair amount of writing about Emmer’s bid for governor – I thought he had what it took to be the best governor we’ve had in a long time, and I was a supporter from long before he actually declared his intent to run.  I volunteered a lot of time, and a lot of this blog’s space, to fight against the sleaziest, most toxic smear campaign in recent Minnesota electoral history, and I do believe the better man lost this election.

But I never got any money for it.

What I did get – although not to an extent that would make a Tom Scheck or a Rachel Stassen-Berger in any way jealous – was a certain amount of access.  I heard things.

One of the things I heard from sources inside the Emmer campaign, especially during the long, dry, advertising-dollar-free summer before the primaries, when all three DFL contenders curiously spent their entire ad budgets sniping at Emmer, and the media played dutiful stenographers for Alliance for a Better Minnesota’s smear campaign, was that the Emmer campaign had its work cut out for it.  In late July and early August, a source inside the Emmer campaign, speaking on MI-5-level deep background, told me the internal polls showed Emmer trailing by 12 points.  It wasn’t good news, certainly – but it was early in the race, it was a byproduct of being outspent roughly 16:1 to that point, and it was just part of doing business.   “We gotta pick up six points, and Dayton’s gotta lose six”, the source told me, as the campaign dug its way out of “Waitergate”.

I observed to the source that that should have been nothing new for Emmer; he’d come back from a bigger margin in the previous nine months or so, from being way back in the pack at the Central Committee straw poll about this time last year, where Marty Seifert won by a margin many considered insurmountable.

The source expressed confidence it could be done.

He was, statistically, exactly right. Emmer brought the race back from a 12 point blowout to a near-tie, with numbers that pretty steadily improved – according to the party’s own internal polling.


On October 11, I held a “Bloggers For Emmer” event at an undisclosed location in the western subs.  It had been ten busy weeks since my off-the-record conversation with my source in the campaign.  An Emmer functionary told me – off the record – that it was now a four point race.  

A week later, within ten days of the election, the same internal poll said the race was a statistical dead heat.

Then came the last-minute hit polls from the Humphrey Instititute, the Strib and Saint Cloud State – after which Emmer released his internal polling, which was reinforced by a Survey USA poll that more or less reinforced the internal polls’ results.

And then came the election.

Last week, David Brauer at the MinnPost interviewed Emmer campaign manager Cullen Sheehan.  As part of the piece, he graphed the respective polls: Emmer’s internal polling (orange), the Strib poll (wide dashes) and the HHH poll (dots), showing the indicated size of the Dayton lead.

Graph used by permission of the MinnPost

Graph used by permission of the MinnPost


Although “internal numbers” often become propagandistic leaks, Sheehan insists the data was not for public pre-election consumption. Though he wound up releasing the most favorable result during the campaign, it proved prescient, and two independent pollsters subsequently showed similar results.

And while Brauer points out that internal numbers “aren’t holy” – and many leftybloggers openly guffawed when Sheehan released them – the GOP’s internal numbers have a long record of accuracy, in my experience.  In 2002, when the Strib poll had Roger Moe measuring the drapes in the mansion, a GOP source leaked me internal polling showing that Pawlenty was tied and rising.  And internal polling released to a group of bloggers a month before the election showed Chip Cravaack pulling close to Jim Oberstar; numbers that the campaign asked be kept off the record showed that with “leaners”, Cravaack was actually leading.

So for all the leftyblogs’ caterwauling about “push polling”, the GOP’s internal polls – as seen both publicly and behind the scenes – called things as they were.  There’s a reason for that; parties need to accurate polling to help them allocate scarce resources effectively.  The DFL has not released their internal polling – but the Dayton campaign’s behavior indicates to me that they also saw Emmer’s late surge, leading them to re-roll-out the “Drunk Driving Ad” (the closest the Dayton campaign ever came to a coherent policy statement, with full irony intended).

But neither sides’ internal polling is affiliated with a major media outlet.  The Strib, Minnesota Public Radio and MinnPost all have symbiotic relationships with Princeton, the Humphrey Institute and Saint Cloud State, respectively (though to be accurate the MinnPost only paid for three questions in the SCSU poll, and those were, according to Brauer, on ranked-choice voting).  Those relationships, presumably, exist so that the news outlets can get “their” results out to the public first.

No matter how they’re arrived at, or so it seems.

Brauer confirms after the fact what my sources in the campaign told me, off the record, at the time; it was a real numerical rollercoaster ride:

Although “internal numbers” often become propagandistic leaks, Sheehan insists the data was not for public pre-election consumption. Though he wound up releasing the most favorable result during the campaign, it proved prescient, and two independent pollsters subsequently showed similar results.

“It really is, internally, a compass,” Sheehan says of the campaign’s polling.

Emmer’s own numbers show a candidate trailing — sometimes badly — for nearly the entire race.

On July 28 — three weeks after Emmer’s interminable “tip credit” debacle — the Republican trailed Dayton by 11 points. Ironically, the Star Tribune poll — which Republicans say overstates DFL support — had it closer: Dayton plus-10.

It was a demonstrable fact that the Strib poll oversampled DFL voters by a big margin – but that’s a poll-technique discussion to be held some other time.

In the wake of the double-digit gap, Sheehan took over as campaign manager. But by early October, the internal numbers had barely budged: Emmer was still down 7. A Strib survey taken a week or so earlier showed the Republican down 9 — again, pretty close to what the campaign was seeing.

Finally, on Oct. 13, Emmer got his first great inside news: he was only down 1. But the next media poll (SurveyUSA/KSTP) had him down 5, and an Oct. 18 internal poll repeated that number. It was two weeks before Election Day.

And then came the Big Three media polls, one after the other – the Strib, SCSU and the Humphrey polls – showing Emmer 9, 10 and 12 points down, respectively.  At which point Sheehan opted to release the internal numbers – which were shortly reinforced by SUSA.


“At that point [right before the election – the polls on which I’ve focused throughout this series], undecided voters are making up their minds and supporters are getting anxious, having seen 7 down, 10 down and 12 down,” Sheehan says. “It impacts fundraising and volunteers. It’s definitely not the only factor, but it is a factor.”

Sheehan, now the Minnesota GOP Senate caucus chief of staff, is a Republican, but Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s pollster feels similarly. Reid’s internal numbers proved better than media polls predicting his opponent would win.

Says Sheehan, “The point I am making is that outside public polls have an impact on campaigns — ultimately, some impact on eventual outcome of campaigns, especially in close races.”

At least one media outlet agreed even before the results were known. This year, the Star Tribune declined to do its traditional final-weekend poll. A key reason, editor Nancy Barnes told me, is that “a poll can sometimes influence the outcome of an election.”

Sheehan’s plea? Withhold questionable numbers. “I’m under no illusion that public polls will cease, but I do think news organizations have a responsibility to ask themselves, when they get their results, if they really believe they’re accurate,” he says.

I’ve met Sheehan not a few times.  Great guy.  Big future in politics.  Now, I’m not sure if he’s ever read this series; if he has, I’m sure he needs to be diplomatic.  He’s gotta get along with the regional media.

But the fact remains that the closer the race got, the farther off-the-beam the Strib and HHH polls swerved.

Just the same as they do in practically every election, especially the close ones.

So Sheehan has a point; the news media should treat suspicious polls as they would a source that’s burned them. 

Seriously – can you imagine Erik Black or Bill Salisbury or David Brauer putting a story on the front page (or “page”) based on the uncorroborated word of a source that had burned them, over and over again?  As in, not even close, but really, really embarassingly burned?

And the Strib and Humphrey Polls have burned the regional media – over and over and over again.

Presuming, of course, that accuracy is what they’re shooting for.

More later today.

6 thoughts on “The Great Poll Scam, Part XIII: Reality Swings And Misses

  1. [T]he news media should treat suspicious polls as they would a source that’s burned them.

    And the Strib and Humphrey Polls have burned the regional media – over and over and over again.

    There’s a fundamental difference between being burned and being cooked. And the regional media ’round here, with a few exceptions, don’t see this as being burned at all. They don’t care about being wrong, because they know that they won’t be called to account for it. KARE 11 bruited that Humphrey Institute poll for days as fact, on their newscasts and on their website. When Election Day happened and it turned out to be rot, all they had to do was say that Emmer’s result was surprising and that was the end of it.

    You have done great and important work in pinning all these things down, Mitch. It’s also been heartening to see Brauer follow the story and report it fairly. But the only way these polling practices will change is if there’s a financial impact for getting things wrong. Up to this point, that has not happened. KARE didn’t take any hit for gift wrapping the manure that the Humphrey Institute provided.

  2. Emmer’s interminable “tip credit” debacle

    That’s rich, coming from a MinnPost flying monkey who worked as hard as anyone to keep that fire burning.

    BTW, MinnPost has evidently imposed an embargo against conservative comments. Ripped the pelt off another one.

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  4. I stopped by Minnpost and checked out Eric Black’s latest:

    It’s a fraud, of course. No where does Minnpost identify itself as a “liberal” “left” or “democrat”, news site but the editors all admit leftist sympathies, if you go to the staff page. They probably think of themselves as “middle of the road”.
    The piece by Black includes an interview with some guy named Hy Berman, who used to teach Labor and immigration history at the U (I had to find this out myself, Black just called him a “Minnesota historian”). Black wrote: “These new-style Republicans are “supercapitalist anarchists” who believe that all government spending is wasteful and whose goal is to have no taxes and no government, Berman said, hyperbolically.”

    No clue as to why Black thought that Berman was speaking hyperbolically, or why a one-time University professor of history could make such an ignorant, inflammatory statement. Anarchists are leftist syndycalists, the heirs of Gramsci and Trotsky. Once black said that, Black should have thrown his notes away. What could someone so blinded by ideology actually have to say that was worth reading?

  5. Hy Berman is a little like Larry Jacobs; among Twin Cities media figures, they are famous largely for being famous. They are quoted because that’s just what one does. Jacobs has been quoted in nearly every Twin Cities media story about politics since….well, since Berman retired.

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