What is a Pollster’s Obligation to a Campaign?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 7, 2013 · 9:50 AM EDT

Politics is a rough-and-tumble business, with campaigns bringing whatever resources they can to the table. But are there limits to what consultants, particularly pollsters, should do for their clients?

I raise that question after reading a May 18 memo from Celinda Lake and four other members of her firm, Lake Research Partners, that sought to discredit a May 14-16 USC Price/Los Angeles Times survey of the Los Angeles mayoral race.

The memo complained that the Times poll understated Los Angeles Controller Wendy Greuel’s vote and overstated City Councilman Eric Garcetti’s. It took exception to the Times’ methodology and proceeded to make a series of arguments why Greuel — Lake Research Partners’ client — was in a position to beat her better-funded opponent. In fact, Greuel wasn’t all that well-positioned (certainly not financially), and she lost.

But I was surprised that the memo referred twice to the fact that the Times editorial page had endorsed Garcetti. The second reference read as follows:

“With just three days until voters decide the next Mayor of LA, it is disappointing that an otherwise well-respected publication like the LA Times would put out a flawed poll in favor of their endorsed candidate, despite no other polls reporting anything remotely similar.”

Clearly, the five Lake Research members were implying that the Times poll was little more than a thinly veiled effort to help the candidate preferred by the newspaper’s editorial page. Accusing the Times of being involved in a conspiracy to use a bogus poll to help Garcetti was nothing short of a rash, unsubstantiated accusation of bias and fraud.

Mind you, the survey in question was conducted for the Times by a reputable, bipartisan polling team: Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, and M4 Strategies, a GOP firm. And the LA Times piece in question was written by Michael Finnegan, a well-regarded political reporter who was described to me by a veteran journalist as “one of the most honest and conscientious reporters I have ever worked with.”

The charge — and the entire memo — was all the more head-scratching because Lake Research Partners never referred to its own survey. It cited other polls, but never its own data, which seemed like an obvious omission.

If it had the data to contradict the Times survey, why didn’t Lake present it? That’s normally what campaigns and pollsters do. In fact, the firm didn’t have recent polling.

I called Lake Research and spoke with Bob Meadow, who had a distinguished career in academia before joining Lake Research in 2005. He is a partner in the firm.

First, Meadow pointed out that the memo I’ve cited was not distributed to the media but was meant primarily for Greuel’s supporters and contributors, both of whom might be deflated by the news of the LA Times poll. It sought to remind supporters that “polls come and go” and reassure them that “they shouldn’t panic.”

Second, he criticized the timing of the newspaper’s survey, arguing that the Times was both “making news” and reporting it just a few days before the election. That’s a reasonable point, but you can bet that Lake Research would have been crowing about the numbers if they had shown Greuel leading.

And third, he argued that while the first responsibility of Lake Research Partners is to provide its campaigns with the best data from which to create a successful message, it should also support its campaigns “where possible.”

It’s that “where possible” that opens up a potential can of worms. I have no problems with the part of the Lake Research memo challenging the Times’ sample and turnout model. But suggesting collusion between the editorial page and the news gathering side to help one candidate and damage the other?

The problem for the folks over at Lake Research, of course, is that the Times’ poll probably was correct. It showed Garcetti up by 7 points, and he beat Greuel by just less than 8 points. (A SurveyUSA poll completed two days after the LA Times survey also showed Garcetti opening up a 5-point lead. The previous SurveyUSA, completed 10 days earlier, had shown the race tied.)

Of course, the folks at Lake Research didn’t publicly apologize to the LA Times. They could always respond that reports of the poll moved voters or that Garcetti’s late advertising blew the race open. As far as I know, they never acknowledged that the Times’ poll numbers were right.

While I agree with Meadow that consultants can try to help their campaigns “where possible,” I would argue that pollsters have an obligation to make certain that campaigns don’t misuse their survey data and that they, themselves, don’t become little more than spin doctors for their campaigns.

Professional pollsters ought to protect their reputations first, even ahead of promoting their candidates.