Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Shooting the Messenger

bernick mugA column this week on the emotions surrounding a political campaign and their effects on candidates and their families.

I’ve watched these processes for around 40 years.

And rarely do we get through a campaign season without some candidate temper flares, unfortunate comments, and troubling accusations.

The small UtahPolicy family saw it this week with GOP gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Johnson’s reaction to a new poll commissioned by UPD conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, Utah’s longtime premiere pollster.

Good public opinion polling – and Jones has 40 years of good public opinion polling – are snapshots of citizens and voters views at the time the survey is taken.

(Our publisher LaVarr Webb, like Jones a man of integrity, wrote a terrific explanation of the science/art of polling recently, you can read it here.)

Polling can be really tough on the candidate who finds himself far behind his competitor, very satisfying for the candidate ahead.

In a primary contest – where you don’t have the natural fundraising base of a political party and its supporters – polling can be especially devastating.

I recall a Democratic candidate for a major office years ago calling me up at the Deseret News, from an airport where he was traveling for his business, to say after we’d published a Dan Jones poll showing him way behind a fellow Democratic candidate that he was canceling his trip and coming home to drop out of the race.

That was an extreme reaction to a poll.

But one that I certainly understood.

For in a primary contest a poll that shows you way behind your intra-party challenger can dry up donations.

Being down by 50 percentage points can about kill your fundraising – so necessary for you to buy media time or space to get your name out there so you can gain on your opponent.

It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: You need money to buy media time to get known so you can advance in the polls so you can fundraise more to buy more media time and on and on.

This is why candidates with personal wealth have an advantage in a primary race or a candidate with access to some wealthy person or business or association can better raise primary campaign donations.

It does not mean a person without personal money can’t win in a primary contest.

For all his bluster, billionaire Donald Trump has not spent much of his own cash in his presidential bid – like no other candidate in recent history Trump is great at getting “free media” – the national press covers about anything he says, and so Trump communicates with voters via the covering media – not by purchasing tens of millions of dollars in TV and radio ad time.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has put together a fantastic small donation online operation – and raising as much or more money than his well-connected Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

In the case of both men, their messages are carrying their fundraising/media exposure.

Much more often it is the case that if you are behind in the polls – especially behind in the primary polling – it is because your message, for whatever reason, is not catching on.

You aren’t making headway in your campaign not because the local press is against you, or the polling is slanted against you, but because you as a candidate are not making an impact with voters.

This can be incredibly frustrating, even maddening, for the trailing candidate, his family and inside circle of supporters and staffers.

As a candidate, you KNOW you are better than the guy you are challenging.

Your family knows you are a better candidate, can do more, for the public than that other guy.

And, yet, here are these damn polls that show you so far behind.

You call up a potential donor who said two months ago to your face he would help you financially, and the guy says: “Gee, I just saw that Dan Jones poll. And you are really way behind. How can you possibly catch up? Wouldn’t I just be wasting my money on you?”

Wow. How do you answer that one?

The guy would be getting better odds hitting a 17 at a Las Vegas Black Jack table than betting on a candidate 55 points down six weeks from election day.

So as the candidate, you attack the poll.

You attack the man who conducted the poll.

Maybe attack the man who paid the man to conduct the poll.

And when you end up losing the primary election six weeks later – after you’ve put up some media and the voters start paying attention to the race – you loudly say: “See, I was right. I was never behind by 55 points. I lost by 12 points and if I’d had four more weeks and five hundred thousand dollars I would have beaten that guy.”

But the fact was you were behind by 55 points six weeks ago.

Your message was not catching on – or at least had not yet done so.

You think: “If not for those damn polls – I could have raised the money I needed. I could have beaten that guy.”


The polls accurately reflected at the time, within the margin of error, what is really happening in the GOP governor’s primary race.

It may be painful for Johnson.

It may harm his fundraising.

In the eyes of some, it may doom his primary bid – although I’ve never credited polling with determining any race.

But it is what it is.

The question now is, how does a gentleman candidate take that news, and how does he handle it?