A Tale of Bias and the Washington Mentality

Matt Towery

1/28/2010 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

If you want to hear a tale of being beaten up by the Democratic National Party for just delivering an unbiased report, read on. This will tell you more about how Washington works, and about its preconceived biases, than anything you'll come across for a while.

On the Sunday before the vote in the Massachusetts Senate race, my polling firm, InsiderAdvantage, conducted a survey for a prominent Washington-based news organization. The poll was released the next day, Monday, the day before the election. The results made waves by showing Republican Scott Brown with 52 percent of the vote, which is exactly what he ended up with. The poll ran in various other news organizations around the nation. And that's when I started taking a beating.

Unlike many pollsters, we release all of the internal numbers that show how various demographic groups plan to vote -- men and women, different races, various age groups and people of different political persuasions. Our poll, heaven forbid, showed now Sen.-Elect Brown's opponent, Martha Coakley, with 43 percent of the vote. (She got 47 percent.) The poll also had 2 percent going to the third candidate, one Joseph Kennedy, who is not related to the famous Kennedy clan. The remainder of poll respondents said they were undecided.

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Understand that Coakley had a terrible time on the campaign trail the weekend that culminated with our Sunday poll. She campaigned with Ted Kennedy's son, who reportedly kept calling her "Marsha" rather than Martha. And she really stepped in it when she inadvertently insulted, of all people, Boston Red Sox fans. She blurted out that Sox legend Curt Shilling was a New York Yankees fan!

Polls are accurate most of the time, even though some will never accept that. Even so, polling is like watching sausage being made. The internal components that yield the final polling results are sometimes hard to stomach.

As soon as our poll was released, two things happened. First, I unexpectedly fell very ill. I mean, can't-lift-your-head-off-the-pillow ill. It lasted a week, and I lost 10 pounds. But it was the second happening that really made me sick.

The good people at the publication that carried our poll were attacked viciously by the Democratic National Committee and by rival media. The attacks included some valid points, although the same attacks also proved the biases that many have in making assumptions about certain demographic groups.

Essentially, the attackers criticized that our poll showed nearly 26 percent of blacks voting for Brown, the Republican. As it turned out, a post-election analysis showed that in some of the heaviest African-American locations in the state, Brown received support well into the teen percentiles. But the natural presumption that all African-Americans vote Democratic was used to discredit our poll. By the way, blacks only make up 7 percent of the voters in Massachusetts. So it really was not going to be a determining factor in the race anyway.

But it didn't stop there. Our poll showed the youngest voters supporting Brown. "How could that be?" the critics cried. Well, given that many polls show that younger voters often are the ones having the hardest time finding jobs, and seem to be drifting away a bit from the Democrats, is it not just possible that our poll was right on that count, too?

Then, of course, I was personally attacked for having been Newt Gingrich's onetime political chairman. But these critics didn't bother to point out that I was the same pollster that, for this same Washington-based news organization, showed Barack Obama carrying critical swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the 2008 presidential general election. No one from the Democratic National Committee was calling me a plant by the Republicans back then.

The nit-picking went on and on. And in my state of feverish illness, I let down this Washington publication, one of the best in the nation, by not being more lucid in defense of our poll.

But, guess what: The poll was right. It was the only poll that showed the exact final percentage won by Brown. The fact that Coakley came up from 43 percent to 47 percent -- bid deal, right? -- is likely because she regained some Democrats and undecideds who got over her slight to the Red Sox and her weak campaign overall.

I still feel badly for the publication I polled this for -- not because the poll wasn't darn good, but because I wasn't there when they needed me. But I'll be damned if I'll be attacked for my firm's integrity when the fact is that Coakley's stands on health care, the economy and federal spending caused her to lose the Senate race.

Next time, don't shoot the messenger. Especially when he's right.