PPP (D) Polls Flood Early Senate Landscape

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 5, 2011 · 10:09 AM EDT

In recent years, Democrats have consistently criticized Rasmussen Reports for flooding the public space with polls and driving the narrative of races to favor Republican candidates. But six months into the 2012 cycle, public polling in Senate races has been dominated by one Democratic firm.

Public Policy Polling, an automated interview polling company based in North Carolina, has conducted almost 60 percent of all public polls measuring hypothetical 2012 Senate matchups up to this point in the cycle.

The firm counts Democratic candidates and interest groups as clients, but the majority of PPP’s Senate polls this year were conducted on the firm’s dime as a marketing strategy.

That strategy has drawn some criticism.

Setting aside controversy over the firm’s methodology, some Republicans believe the Democratic firm has ulterior motives.

“I think they are intentionally trying to instigate primaries,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said.

Earlier this cycle in Ohio, PPP tested Ken Blackwell (R) as a potential Senate candidate even though there was no public reason to believe the former Ohio secretary of state was contemplating a bid. Of course, Democrats wouldn’t mind running against Blackwell based on his 2006 gubernatorial run, during which he received a smaller share of the vote than all but one candidate since World War II.

But after PPP polls in December and March found he was competitive and even led the hypothetical GOP primary field, Blackwell publicly explored a race for weeks until he bowed out Friday.

PPP also tested former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the Arizona Senate race and unpopular Republicans Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California Senate contest even though each was highly unlikely to run for the Senate next year.

Republicans also are frustrated with the media’s failure to identify PPP’s partisanship when reporting on its surveys.

“They’re a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party,” Jesmer charged.

In an interview with Roll Call, PPP Director Tom Jensen downplayed his firm’s influence, but he made no apologies for the company’s decision to pay for its own polls. Jensen called it a “tremendous sales strategy” and added that the past six months have been the most successful in the firm’s existence.

The gratis public polls allow PPP to “build up a track record of accuracy,” according to Jensen, particularly with potential clients who are suspicious of automated polling.

As a result, candidates aren’t necessarily hiring PPP as their primary pollster, but potential candidates are instead looking to the firm to test their viability. An automated poll can be one-eighth of the cost of a traditional survey that uses live callers to conduct interviews.

While the strategy seems to be working for PPP, not everyone agrees with the philosophy.

SurveyUSA uses automated interviews to conduct many of its polls but differs from PPP as to when and where surveys should be conducted.

“All of our energy is trying to get surveys right, not to do more surveys,” SurveyUSA founder Jay Leve told Roll Call this week. SurveyUSA does not poll without a paying client, which Leve believes is a critical ingredient of good research, along with adherence to the codes of conduct from various polling associations.

“When one or more [of those elements] is missing, there is more opportunity for abuse,” Leve said. In comparison, when all of the pieces are together, it “provides the best opportunity for learning and the least opportunity for chicanery.”

Leve is careful to make the distinction between a partisan firm, such as PPP, trying to attract partisan clients and his non-partisan research firm, which conducts much of its horse-race polling for local media clients.

According to Jensen, his firm isn’t conducting more polls than usual. Instead, PPP’s share of the polling looks larger because of the lack of other public surveys. That’s likely to change in a couple of months.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen told Roll Call that his firm will probably start polling Senate races this fall when the political climate starts to settle and the presidential race becomes more defined.

“Until we get past the Iowa State Fair, political analysis is worthless,” Rasmussen said about the mid-August event. Rasmussen, who admitted he was exaggerating a bit, also downplayed the concept of shaping narratives.

But with a hungry media eager to eat up any and all polls, surveys conducted by PPP, Rasmussen and others inevitably make their way into political story lines.

That can create headaches for party strategists, who doubt those public polls will ultimately persuade or dissuade serious potential candidates from entering or exiting a race. Party strategists on both sides of the aisle will always rely on surveys they pay for by firms they trust.

“You’d have to be high to make decisions based on either of those firms,” Jesmer said, referring to PPP and Rasmussen.