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Spin Control: Let’s talk about polls

The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Anyone who pays attention to politics is about to get inundated with polling data, so it’s probably a good time for Spin Control’s regular admonition about polls.

There are good polls and bad polls, just as there are also good interpretations and bad interpretations.

The first rule of polls – even well-designed ones – is that they are not predictive, they are illustrative. In other words, they don’t tell you what’s going to happen, they show the mood of people they are surveying at this point. That’s why political polls start with “If the election were held today, would you vote for A or B?” Lots of stuff can happen between today and the election.

The second rule of polls, at least for reporters, is that you can’t trust the results from one question if you can’t see the whole survey and the way the poll was put together. The number of people called, the makeup of their ages, income and education levels, geographic locations, political persuasions and voting frequency are all important for a valid political poll.

For example, interviewing 500 people in the city of Spokane who voted in 2016 won’t give you a good picture of the 5th Congressional District race this year because the district is more than just Spokane and not everybody who voted in the presidential election is going to vote in the midterm, no matter how hard the campaigns work.

Professional pollsters know how to model a sample of a city, a district or a state to get a group that is representative of that place where the election will take place. But they also know how to develop a set of questions that will tell the campaign what issues might resonate with voters and help develop a message that helps their candidate or hurts their opponent.

So if they ask a series of questions like “Would it affect your vote if you knew Candidate A likes to kick puppies?” or “Would you support Candidate A if he was accused of stealing candy from infants and small children?” and then ask “If the election were held today, would you vote for Candidate A or Candidate B?” you can’t trust the results of that last question. But you can be pretty sure Candidate B is going to run ads accusing Candidate A of being cruel to puppies and stealing candy from babies.

The third rule of polls is never trust a candidate who is spending lots of money on polls but says “I don’t care what the polls say, the only one that counts is on Election Day.” Why should you trust someone who is either throwing good money at bad research or is ignoring the data he or she is paying for?

The final rule of polls is that any candidate who is behind in the polls and invokes the spirit of Harry Truman running against Thomas E. Dewey, is going to lose.

Legislators already can protect constituents’ privacy – Pollet

The news media got an assist last week – from a legislator – in its battle with the Legislature over the release of public records.

Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, wrote a letter to members of the Legislative Public Records Task Force pointing out some of the problems he saw with that group’s first meeting.

An attorney and longtime advocate for open government, Pollet pointed out that one of the concerns expressed by lawmakers at the meeting – and which echoed comments made in the rush to pass a bill they later asked the governor to veto – doesn’t much hold water.

Task force members worried about the ability to protect the identity of whistleblowers or victims of crimes who contact them seeking help.

“The Public Records Act already provides extensive protections for such personally private communications,” Pollet wrote. It may be a good idea to spell out the protections in any bill for legislative records to assure constituents and staff they will be private and get experts to explain this to the task force, he added.

The task force got a lecture from an Ohio law professor on constitutional protections for lawmakers, but his suggestion that the constitution keeps Washington’s Public Records Law from being applied to them is a stretch, Pollet wrote. Even the Legislature’s own lawyers didn’t raise that point when trying to block the news media’s lawsuit, he noted.


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