Atkins v. Block: How not to use polling data to make your point
October 12, 2015
Given the work Competitive Edge Research & Communication is involved in, it’s rare when I get to observe an election from the sidelines. This is the case with the Democrat vs. Democrat battle between incumbent State Senator Marty Block and challenger Assemblywoman Toni Atkins.
I am not working with either candidate. What matters to me is strengthening the public’s already-frayed trust in public opinion polling and nudging political campaigns to play by the book so that voters can make truly informed decisions.
It’s not every cycle that two prominent elected officials of the same party go after one another, so this race is getting attention. Unfortunately, their polling shenanigans are also getting a lot of attention. Since she was first out of the gate, I’ll start with Assemblywoman Atkins.
Atkins gingerly waded into her campaign on September 18 and a couple days later released a memo with results of a poll conducted three days earlier purporting to show she would crush Block.
The survey itself was promptly dubbed a “mystery poll.” The campaign has not released the wording of all the questions cited in the memo and the campaign has not revealed the demographic makeup of the respondents. Even more important, we have no idea who sponsored or paid for it.
This lack of transparency is troubling, suspicious, and flat out unethical. Atkins’ (or whoever commissioned the mystery poll) pollster EMC Research is a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. I helped write the most recent version of its Code of Ethics which clearly states the exact wording of all questions germane to the reported results must be released, the sponsor must be disclosed and the population under study must be defined. All this information must be released along with the results. The reason is simple: transparency protects against bogus and misleading research.
Who is to blame? It isn’t just the pollster. After all, survey results are property of whoever — or whatever — entity paid for the poll. It is the pollster’s responsibility to make all this information known to its client, but it’s the client who must authorize the public release of the results and documentation. When there is a public release, the pollster should remind the client that it is their obligation to release all the survey information to the public according to the AAPOR Code of Ethics.
In the case of this Atkins’ mystery poll, the release was in the form of a memo on EMC’s letterhead. This suggests that it’s EMC’s responsibility to make the questions, methodology and sponsor public. That’s how it works at Competitive Edge: if it goes on our letterhead, then the ethical obligations must be satisfied.
Wherever the fault lies, it needs to be corrected. Otherwise, the trust Atkins seeks to gain with her potential new constituents will not materialize. When you try to make a public point with polling data, transparency is a must.
I haven’t forgotten Marty Block’s bad behavior. I’ll rip his shenanigans in the next post.