Bob Bernick’s Notebook: The Sad State of Public Opinion Polling

Today I mourn the loss of objective polling by Utah newspapers and TV stations.


When I started writing public opinion poll stories for the Deseret News back in the late 1970s, not only was that newspaper doing a lot of polling (with renowned pollster Dan Jones) in combination with KSL Radio and TV, but The Salt Lake Tribune, KUTV Channel 2 and sometimes even ABC Channel 4 were also paying outside pollsters for public opinion surveys.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, only the Tribune conducts polls, and not very often.

The Deseret News/KSL-TV contract with Dan Jones & Associates (which was bought out several years ago by another local pollster) ran out two years ago and has not been renewed.

That doesn’t mean that Jones may not do polling for the newspaper/TV station on occasion.

But so far in the 2014 election cycle, no local news outlet has conducted any polling.

Not the News/KSL.

Not the Tribune.

Not any of the other TV stations.

All this leads, of course, to local news operations looking to candidates and their campaigns to provide polling on their own races.

Or on occasion a special interest group, like the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, or a university will release a survey on this or that topic – which is also picked up by the local news media.

And so this past Monday, when UtahPolicy broke the new Doug Owens’ poll, paid for by his campaign in the 4th Congressional District race, it was top news in all of the media outlets.

I remember a time when the DN didn’t even write stories on candidates’ own polls, much preferring to run our own Dan Jones head-to-head matchups on the interesting races.

And we didn’t just do the major federal elections and governor’s contest.

We did polls on Salt Lake County races, on the attorney general contests, and on important ballot issues, as well.

At the DN peak, Jones was conducting 12 or 14 polls a year for us – I know this because as political editor I had input into the Jones contracts, kept track of all the polling and, in conjunction with KSL editors, helped pick the polling topics and write the poll questions.

We had all the major races and issues covered – and boy did we hear groans from those who found their candidates or issues badly trailing in Jones’ surveys.

In any case, with all the different news outlet polls out there, there was a lot of comparing and contrasting of data results.

Over the years Jones took great pride in the accuracy of his polls – and sweated a lot of blood over the results.

The Tribune had various pollsters over the years, and in general their polling results showed better for Democratic candidates, especially in Salt Lake County.

Two years ago – as can happen at times – the then-Tribune pollster, in an effort to meet deadlines, erred in some mathematical calculations.

And the Tribune – to its credit – ended up retracting that data and running a new survey.

That pollster no longer works for the Tribune and its parent company, Digital First Media, I’m told.

But we’re not seeing any Trib polls so far this year.

And maybe the only media polling we’ll see will come just before the early November general election.

Thus, a candidate’s poll, like Owens’, becomes big political news – because there is no other polling out there on interesting races.

UtahPolicy has for years conducted weekly surveys of “political insiders.” We recently started partnering with KSL Radio and TV to get some play there, as well.

The email questions go out to around 250 leading officeholders, lobbyists and special interest folks.

UtahPolicy readers can also weigh in on the questions, too.

While often interesting reading – and valuable to decision-makers — this is NOT a scientific survey of Utahns in general, nor of registered voters.

And special interest groups can organize reader responses, flooding and influencing our reader poll results – as an anti-Common Core group did last week on a question we put out about that school/student evaluation program.

I’ve also noticed over the last few years that one or two TV stations will put up a question at the beginning of their newscast and ask viewers to get on to station’s web site and respond to that question – with the “results” announced at the end of the newscast.

This, too, is NOT a scientific poll. And the results can be influenced if quick-acting special interest groups get their supporters to answer the results during the newscast.

But with no money to hire scientific, objective professional pollsters, news outlets are grabbing at what they can in the form of “public opinion polling.”

Clearly, the editors believe that something on polling is better than nothing.

Long gone are the days when a big event would break, either locally, nationally or internationally, and the next morning I’d get a call from Jones asking why don’t we go into the field immediately and have (scientific) public opinion results on the event within 24 hours.

No longer can a news organization – like the DN did back in 1988 – report as one candidate, in this case Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson, have a 30-point lead over another, GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, and be able to watch as week by week Bangerter closed the gap, only to win the race the final week by 2 percentage points on Election Day.

That was a horse race.

And wonderful to watch and measure for the media and for the public.

I hope as local news organizations figure out their financial footing over the next decade, they will be able to dedicate resources to conducting important polling on political races and issues interesting to the Utah public.

The data from those surveys make not only interesting news stories, but is invaluable in tracking changes to the electorate and society at large.

Today, as newsrooms shrink and reporting suffers, unbiased public opinion polling is also wasting away.