Cooked voter poll led to tax referendum debacle

Paul GoldmanBy Paul Goldman

Goldman, 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.

 "Keep the big boys honest."  -- legendary Lt. Gov. Henry Howell

         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.

            Yet this fascinating, true story doesn't seem to interest Hampton Roads journalists.

            This 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 of business?

  • 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 what transpired.

          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 indigestion

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.

          Moreover, these "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.

           The stories 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.

            The 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 political process.

                 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 his cause.

                    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 fail-safe point.

                    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

There 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 explanation.

                  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.

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002