Campaign pollster under oath: Of course we spin

posted at 2:41 pm on October 2, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

What happens when a pollster testifies under oath?  We get a midday palate cleanser, that’s what.  Politco’s Josh Gerstein digs up testimony from John Edwards’ 2008 campaign pollster Harrison Hickman, who had to explain to a jury whether Edwards was still a viable candidate when money began exchanging hands to keep his affair with Rielle Hunter under wraps.  Edwards’ attorneys had to argue for the purpose of getting their client off the hook that his campaign was a joke by the end of 2007, but that ran into some problems based on Hickman’s published analyses during the winter.  Prosecutors insisted that Hickman thought Edwards could still win, but Hickman responded by explaining the role of campaign pollsters — to spin, spin, and spin some more until the candidate throws in the towel:

Hickman, called by the former senator’s defense, testified that he told Edwards in “early to middle of November 2007,” that the campaign wasn’t going to succeed.

“I told him that the odds were overwhelming that we were not going—that he was not going to be the nominee for president. I mean, we talked about a variety of things might change, do differently, and all that, but none of them translated into winning the nomination,” the North Carolina-based pollster told Edwards attorney Alan Duncan.

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.

According to Gerstein, reporters seemed bemused by the prosecution’s confusion on this point.  Not only is it rather obvious what campaign pollsters do, it’s pretty similar to what defense attorneys do.  They make the best possible case for their client, right up until reality becomes so obvious that even the client can’t deny it any longer.

Hickman left the jury with a tip on pollster credibility:

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.

Actually, I think Mason-Dixon has a pretty good record overall, and I’m not as sanguine about CNN’s polling — and I’m not familiar at all with the LA Times’ polling output.  The DMR has a sterling record on polling in Iowa, of course, and is about the only poll worth watching when it comes to caucuses.  Of course, Hickman’s own professed spin might color your perception of his advice, so take it for what it’s worth.


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