Political operative discusses which polls he thought were reliable, unreliable while working for Edwards 2008 campaign

Amidst discussions of whether current polls are accurately weighting their samples for Democrats and Republicans, a former political operative for Al Gore and John Edward talks about how the Edwards campaign used polls:

However, under cross-examination by lead prosecutor David Harbach, Hickman acknowledged sending a series of emails in November and December, and even into January, endorsing or promoting polls that made Edwards look good. Asked about what appeared to be a New York Times/CBS poll released in mid-November showing an effective “three-way tie” in Iowa with Hillary Clinton at 25 percent, Edwards at 23 percent and Obama at 22 percent, Hickman acknowledged he circulated it but insisted he didn’t think it was correct.

“The business I’m in is a business any fool can get into, and a lot can happen. I’m sure there was a poll like that,” the folksy Hickman told jurors when first asked about a poll showing the race tied. “I kept up with every poll that was done, including our own, and there may have been a few that showed them a tie, but… that’s not really what my analysis is. Campaigns are about trajectory, and… there could have been a point at which it was a tie in the sense that we were coming down, and Obama was going up, and Clinton was going up.”

Hickman also indicated that senior campaign staffers knew many of the polls were poorly done and of little value. “We didn’t take these dog and cat and baby-sitter polls seriously,” he said.

Hickman acknowledged that on January 2, 2008, a day before the Iowa caucuses, he sent out a summary of nine post-Christmas Iowa polls showing Edwards in contention in the Hawkeye State. However, he testified two-thirds of them were from firms he considered “ones we typically would not put a lot of credence in.” Hickman put Mason-Dixon, Strategic Vision, Insider Advantage, Zogby and Research 2000 in the “less reputable” group. He also told the court that ARG polls “have a miserable track record.”

Hickman said he considered the Des Moines Register polls, CNN and Los Angeles Times polls more accurate.

This seems like typical politics: an operative is supposed to spin the best news they can about their candidate, even if they don’t think this is the whole story. However, it is fascinating to see his opinion of different polling organizations. I wish he went on to describe why some of these polls were better than others: better samples, more reliable and/or predictive results, they lined up with other reputable polls? At the same time, I think the DrudgeReport’s headline for this story, “Under oath, Edwards pollster admits polls were ‘propaganda,'” is a bit misleading.  Hickman wasn’t disparaging all polls; he was admitting to using some polls that he thought were inaccurate to tell a particular political story.

If we got a bunch of current political operatives in a room, here are questions we could ask that would revealing:

1. Are there certain polls that you all consider to be reliable? (I hope the answer is yes. But I would also guess that each political party thinks certain polls tend to lean in their direction.)

2. What information do you all work with regularly that helps give you a better picture of what is going beyond the polls? In other words, the American public doesn’t get much of an inside view while the campaign is happening beyond a stream of polls reported by the media but the campaigns themselves have more information that matters. How much should the public pay attention to these polls or can they pick up clues from what is really going on elsewhere? (The media seems to like polls but there are other ways to get information.)

3. In the long run, who is helped or harmed by having a lot of polling organizations? Hickman suggests some polls aren’t that worthwhile so if this is the case, should they not be reported to the American public? (Americans can look at a variety of polls; should there be that many to choose from?)

Unfortunately, this story feeds a growing mistrust of polls. Generally, it is not good for social science if 42% of Americans think polls are biased for one candidate or another. On one hand, these 42% may simply not like what the polls are reporting, have little idea how polls work, and simply want their candidate to win (and won’t like the polls until this happens). On the other hand, perceptions matter and decisions about polls should be made on scientific grounds, not on ideological or partisan affections. And, surely this has to play into the finding that only 9% of Americans are willing to respond to telephone surveys.

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