Cooked voter poll led to tax
the Rebel With A Cause, was chief political strategist for
the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was
credited with leading a "revolution in American
politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking
America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics. He
alone will be responsible for his column, ideas, and opinions.
the big boys honest." -- legendary Lt. Gov. Henry
Those with a proven
record of changing the status quo and moving Virginia forward have a
right to be furious at a small clique of businessmen in the Hampton
Roads Partnership, along with Senator Marty Williams (R- Newport News),
chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Together, they engaged
in a cynical effort to manipulate the political system by use of a
"cooked" public opinion poll. Give them their due: They held
Tidewater politics hostage for the past year.
this fascinating, true story doesn't seem to interest Hampton Roads
is very curious. For the past many months, the editorial pages of the
Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot engaged in the most sustained and
unprecedented "blame the customer" politics in my political
experience. They derided the IQ and the local economic patriotism of
eastern Virginia residents, accusing them of selfishly refusing to
shoulder their fair share of responsibility for dealing with the
region's transportation needs.
I ask you:
In what other legal endeavor could you berate your customers as
ignorant, selfish, uninformed and cheap, but not worry about going out
The first amendment guarantees everyone the right to express, ad nauseam
if necessary, their political opinion. But as I wrote
here on Aug. 22:
"A constant, tax, tax, tax mantra, where every time you pick up the
newspaper one reads the same
argument stated another way, is counterproductive. Repetition
doesn't make something more right,
or more sensible, or make it more likely to happen. Truth is, assuming
the editorial writers want to be taken seriously, the opposite
result is often put in political motion."
Sadly -- and this is
what led to the research contained in this article -- neither the Daily
Press nor the Virginian-Pilot apparently feels any journalistic
obligation to review their crucial role in this cynical manipulation.
Yet their "news" stories on Nov. 29, 2001 were critical to
When you compare
the essential content of these stories -- based purely on the
self-serving claims of privately funded interests -- with what has now
been proven in the public arena, surely one does not have to be Edward
R. Murrow on his legendary show “See It Now” to realize journalism
tradition expects, and the people deserve, a public accounting.
I hope what
follows will start the process.
A "cooked poll" leads to terrible case of political
It all started, if you believe the newspapers, on Nov. 14, the 141st
birthday of Claude Monet, the great French impressionist.
But certain members of the Hampton Roads Partnership, a public-private
alliance between businessmen and politicians, knew they needed something
stronger than a painter of water lilies. So they hired the respected
Republican polling firm of McLaughlin and Associates to do a
"poll" of Hampton Roads voters on the transportation issue.
According to the Pilot, the interviewing took place on Nov. 14th, 2001.
The "results" proved forever the famous adage: Yes, Virginia,
there is a Santa Claus.
The Hampton Roads
Partnership "poll" was unlike any other -- before or since --
on the transportation issue in the Hampton Roads area.
"results" could not have appeared at a more politically
convenient time. On Nov. 6, Virginians had elected Mark Warner as
Governor. Many in the press were attributing this victory to his support
for allowing regional transportation tax referendums in those areas that
wanted them. On Oct. 20, the Warner campaign made news in the Daily
Press by saying the candidate would sign such a measure for Hampton
Roads, not just Northern Virginia, the major referendum battleground.
Candidate Warner also made it clear he was not going to force a
referendum on any region. Indeed, the Daily Press later had a story in
January tweaking Gov. Warner for his hands-off position.
Then presto, the Hampton
Roads Partnership finds gives the local news media their "poll
results." In turn, the media give the "results"
legitimacy and massive publicity without any real effort to check the
accuracy despite the private interest of the source.
appeared on Nov. 29th, with the headline in the Daily Press beginning
with the words "Poll: Traffic is Area Top Woe ...." According
to the Pilot, the poll found that residents in Hampton Roads were three
times more likely to pick "transportation" as the
"leading problem facing the region" over education.
opening line in the front page Virginian-Pilot story declared that
"[N]early 70 percent of Hampton Roads residents polled in a new
survey back the idea of a regional tax to pay for key local road and
transit projects." Never has a turkey of a "poll"
contributed more to a Happy Thanksgiving than during November of 2001.
This image of overwhelming public concern with transportation fit
perfectly with the impression that Warner's advocacy of regional
referendums won him the election.
Suddenly, Hampton Roads residents were THREE TIMES more likely to list
transportation as their leading issue as opposed to education. This was
the key data point, the one showing the "poll" was
"cooked." By "cooked," I do not mean to suggest the
numbers reported were in any way fabricated.
But what almost surely did happen is that the questionnaire and
methodology used to develop and then take the "poll" was
knowingly skewed so as the "results" would be as good as
possible for the people paying for the "poll." Sen. Williams
and the Hampton Roads Partnership now had a gun to the head of the local
As Senate Transportation Committee chairman, Mr. Williams also had great
sway over the fate of the Northern Virginia transportation referendum
proposal. It wasn't long before the news stories in Tidewater were
reporting that Del. Jack Rollison, the sponsor of the NOVA
transportation referendum and worried about its passage, was saying
publicly how this new support for a Tidewater referendum proposal helped
By Feb. 27, the Hampton Roads Referendum had already passed both the
House and the Senate, without needing any prodding from the Governor as
reported in the media. At which point, the politics had passed the
Once Williams and the Hampton Road Partnership got the referendum on the
ballot, they set in motion a chain of event that led to an inevitable
falling of the dominoes.
Lessons to be learned
is an important line between forceful advocacy and manipulative
irresponsibility. The "cooking" of a poll, and then using it
to give a false impression on such an emotional political issue, crosses
that line in my judgment. The greatest danger to any democratic process
is a rampant, reinforcing cynicism among the public.
Cynicism, far more than bad judgment, is the true enemy of progress, for
it makes people believe all the politicians are the same. What happened
in Tidewater is now clear. Some very powerful local forces used their
position to take advantage of the system.
The Tidewater news media did not bother to do their due diligence, but
rather allowed themselves to be used to promote this false impression.
Given the overwhelming support they gave the tax referendum,
journalistic tradition says they now owe the public an accounting and an
Based on these facts, many of the contributors who gave those several
million to the YES campaign might rightly believe they were fleeced out
of their money.
I teach my son the end does not justify the means. This is an important
lesson in life. We are all never too old to learn it.
Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002