Monday, August 30, 2010

Bullying Leader or Leading Bully?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Much has been made of New Jersey Governor Christ Christie’s initial harangue over the state’s loss of Race to the Top funds.  The governor lambasted federal bureaucrats and the Obama administration for not accepting revised information, although subsequent evidence indicates that such information was never provided by the state.

The governor’s political opponents say this incident was just another manifestation of Christie’s bullying personality.  Those more sympathetic see the governor’s self-titled “rants” as the product of a refreshing leadership style.

There is little doubt that Chris Christie approaches his job with a much different style than his predecessors.  One question on the punditry’s mind is how the public perceives this style.  Is Christie seen as a leader or a bully?

The Quinnipiac University Poll attempted to address this question by asking voters straight out:  “Would you describe Governor Christie as being more of a bully or more of a leader?”  Their June poll found New Jersey voters split at 44% for leader and 43% for bully.  By August, opinion had shifted to 51% leader and 39% bully.

One striking thing about those numbers is how closely they match the governor’s overall job performance rating, which was 44% approve to 43% disapprove in the June poll and 51% approve to 36% disapprove in August.  In fact, the results are nearly identical.

The folks at Quinnipiac were kind enough to provide additional information on the job approval and leader/bully questions from the August poll.  Their results show that fully 86% of those who approved of Christie’s job performance called him a leader (just 5% chose bully) and 84% of those who disapproved of Christie saw him as a bully (only 10% chose leader).  That’s a very high correlation.

The morning the June poll was released, New Jersey 101.5 radio host Jim Gearhart discussed it on the air.  One caller identified himself as a participant in the Quinnipiac poll.  He thought that a little bullying on the governor’s part was actually a good thing for the state.  However, the caller chose “leader” in response to the poll question because he felt that the other answer would be interpreted as a negative opinion of the governor.

This participant’s choice in response is what some pollsters call an “expressed belief” – that is, answering a poll question to send a message rather than answering it literally.  Based on the strong correlation between the approve/disapprove question and leader/bully question, this one participant was probably not alone.

[Coincidentally, ABC News pollster Gary Langer just posted a blog on this concept with regard to public “belief” that Barack Obama is Muslim.]

Another concern that Jim Gearhart raised that morning is whether “leader” and “bully” are necessarily mutually exclusive concepts for voters.  We can’t tell from the Quinnipiac poll because the choice was presented as “either/or.”  However, the Eagleton-Rutgers Poll also released results this month which shed some light on the leader versus bully debate.

Eagleton-Rutgers presented poll participants with eight different terms and asked them to rate how well each describes Governor Christie (i.e. very, somewhat, or not at all well).  Among those terms were “Strong Leader” and “Bully.”

Their results found that 36% of New Jersey voters felt that strong leader describes Christie very well and another 34% somewhat well – a total of 70%.  On the other hand, 25% said bully describes the governor very well and 24% somewhat well – a total of 49%.

Obviously, there must be some overlap between the two.  Dave Redlawsk at Eagleton was kind enough to provide me more details on his poll.  Just 4% of New Jersey voters think that both strong leader and bully describe Christie very well.  Interestingly, this 4% result is identical to the percentage of participants in the Quinnipiac poll who both approved of Christie’s job performance and saw him as more of a bully than a leader.

If we expand our pool to those who feel that both characteristics (leader and bully) are at least somewhat apt descriptions of the governor, we get up to just around 30% of all participants in the Eagleton poll.

This suggests that the majority of New Jersey voters see “leader” and “bully” as mutually exclusive concepts when it comes to assessing their governor.  Whether this exclusion is tied intrinsically to one’s overall opinion of the governor or is truly a difference in the underlying concepts is a matter of debate.

The cautionary tale here is that the meaning of poll questions may be different for those of us who write the questions than it is for those who answer them.  Bottom line:  Be careful of taking the results of poll questions too literally.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Adventures in Campaign Message Polling, part 2

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

I recently wrote that a publicly released campaign poll memo was from a message testing survey, with the results presented out of context. I’ve had some experience with message testing polls, specifically working with non-profit organizations on crafting communication strategies.

My most recent experience with message testing polls, though, was as a respondent. A few weeks ago, I was called on my home phone to participate in a message testing poll conducted on behalf of a local campaign. With a plethora of campaign polls now underway, this recent experience provides a good lesson on what goes into a message testing survey – and why the media should be wary of reporting any results from an internal campaign poll. [It also provides a good lesson on the difficultly of avoiding at least a little bias creeping into partisan polls.]

The first question is how my name got chosen for this poll. Simply, I vote in every general election and so I am very likely to turn out for this off-year election. Furthermore, as an unaffiliated (i.e. independent) voter, I’m part of the “persuadable” electorate for whom campaign messages are specifically crafted.

After establishing that I didn’t work for a political or media organization, the poll interviewer’s first question was whether I thought my local area is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track. This was followed by a generic horse-race question, i.e. whether I was likely to vote Democratic or Republican for the local offices up for election this November. This is a standard question to establish a baseline, since most voters use party ID cues as their primary vote decision tool. It was also the first of three times I would be asked to state my vote intention during the course of the interview – a key characteristic of message testing polls.

The next set of questions asked me whether I have heard of the incumbent officeholders up for re-election and what my overall opinion of them was. Again, this is standard stuff – incumbent elections are typically referenda on the current officeholders. The next question then presented head-to-head matchups for each office, but this time naming the two candidates for each office. This was my second shot at expressing a vote choice, because any change from the generic party ballot question asked earlier could indicate underlying strengths or weaknesses of the named incumbents.

The next questions asked me to name my top local issue and assess my local government’s performance. The purpose of these items is to uncover any unknown issues before the poll measures the impact of potential messages already drafted by the campaign.

We then moved on to the meat of the matter. The interviewer read some fairly long positive descriptions, i.e. messages, about both candidates for each of the offices on the ballot. After which I was asked again about my vote choice – for the third time.

Two things are important to note here. First, an internal poll “memo” which releases the results of this third question without mentioning the context would be misrepresenting actual vote intention of the existing electorate – because the poll respondents had more information about the candidates than typical voters have – and that information was coming one side only.

Second, this is the point where I figured out who sponsored the poll (i.e. the challengers). As hard as this pollster tried to be balanced in wording the positive descriptions for both party’s candidates, the descriptions for one slate of candidates had just a little more “zing” in the wording. This subtle difference could have an unintended impact on the results of the third vote choice question.

To be fair, the word choice may not have been the pollster’s. I’ve worked with partners who insist that a particular word or phrase “needs” to be included in the question. Sometimes, you are successful in talking them out of it, and sometimes you just go along in order to move the project forward.

Question wording is at the core of the art of polling. It deserves as much scrutiny as the demographic composition of a sample and the poll’s margin of error. This is why reputable pollsters release the full wording of all the questions they ask. And it’s why the media should never report a poll where the pollster refuses to release the complete questionnaire.

Back to the survey interview. The final set of questions – before closing with basic demographic information – presented some negative information about the incumbents (confirming my suspicions about the sponsoring party). I was asked whether knowing this information would influence my vote. Again, this is standard stuff.

Interestingly, very few messages were tested in this poll. In a competitive high-profile race, each campaign will test a variety of pro and con statements to narrow down their communication strategy to the most effective messages. In this instance, only one or two messages about each incumbent were tested. This indicates a race where the decision may not be which messages to choose, but whether spending any resources will be worthwhile and, if so, how to identify the most pliable segments of the electorate.

By the way, this was a pretty good message testing poll given the election in question. The interviewer was of very high quality and the questionnaire was well-crafted, my observations about the positive candidate description imbalance notwithstanding.

There is also an interesting side note to this story. I confirmed the identity of the poll sponsor through an Internet search of the firm name and a review of Election Law Enforcement Commission expenditure reports. When I called representatives of both the pollster and party organization to corroborate, they were noticeably flustered. One said he’d call me back, but never did. The other answered my questions mainly with “um” or “er.”

Their reaction underscores the fact that campaigns tend to treat their internal polls as state secrets. Typically, they don’t want anyone outside the campaign organization to know what their poll results reveal. Indeed, they usually don’t want anyone to get wind of the fact they are polling at all. All of which makes any publicly released internal poll immediately suspect.

So, my advice to the media is if a campaign is suddenly eager to release poll results to a wider audience of “interested parties,” consider the motive. And then just file it away.

[Note: I wish campaign pollsters would be more forthcoming with their contact information at the end of the interview, since their conduct reflects on the whole profession. However, I decided not to identify the sponsor of this poll since their practices were sound and the primary purpose of this article is to foster a more critical eye toward the public release of internal campaign polls rather than “out” any particular campaign.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Obama in Need of Some Tom Foolery?

Cross-posted at New Jersey Newsroom

One of the hardest things for a president to do is to stay in touch with the concerns of everyday folk. It’s just the nature of holding a public office, but there are certainly degrees of distance. It is easier for a state legislator to mingle among the masses than it is for a governor. And it is much easier for a member of Congress to grab a bite in a local deli than it is for the President of the United States. Every public official is treated with some deference, but the higher up the political food chain, the more likely it is that encounters with the public will lack some authenticity.

I viewed the live news coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to the Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, New Jersey last week with this in mind. I watched as he disembarked from Air Force One to greet Governor Christie and Mayor Booker – shaking the former’s hand for a prolonged 34 seconds! [I’ve looked at the footage a few times and I’m still not sure who refused to let go.]

I watched as his motorcade pulled up to the shop, blocked from view by a strategically placed delivery truck. I watched people gathered behind barricades yards away wondering whether the President had arrived. Not very riveting stuff.

A while later, a news pool camera came to life and Obama spoke for a few minutes to selected members of the press corp. He talked about the meeting he just had with a handful of local small business owners and called for passage of tax credit legislation to aid small businesses. Then he was whisked off to New York to tape an episode of The View and headline a fundraiser.

So, on his trip to New Jersey (population 8.7 million), President Obama apparently spoke with a grand total of eight state residents: the governor, the mayors of Newark and Edison, and five small business owners. And according to reports, the president, typing on his Blackberry, barely acknowledged the crowds lining Plainfield Avenue during his drive from Marine One’s landing site a few miles from the shop.

Some have questioned the purpose of this presidential visit. If he really wanted to push for passage of the tax credit bill in question – which stalled in the Senate the following day – wouldn’t a high profile event with public statements by small business owners been more effective? We don’t even know what those five business owners said to Obama during that private meeting in Edison.

But maybe we should consider for a moment that generating support for legislation may not have been the president’s primary motivation for this visit. In a recent interview, Obama biographer Jonathan Alter said that the president is not avoiding the isolation of the office “as well as he needs to.” This trip may have been an effort to break through that isolation.

But why come to New Jersey at all? Considering the logistical hassle and cost to taxpayers, wouldn’t it have been cheaper to bring those five business owners to the White House? Cheaper, yes. More effective, maybe not.

By all accounts, it is difficult to be entirely honest with the leader of the free world when you meet him. Nearly everyone who has a presidential encounter reports being awestruck in some way, even if they vehemently disagreed with the incumbent’s politics. It follows that the rank and file citizens President Obama meets in his occasional excursions outside the White House are not always completely candid with him. Inside the White House, that likelihood diminishes even further.

We don’t know how frank those New Jersey business owners were during their short time with the president. But I’ll bet that they were more forthcoming sitting among cartons of chips and cases of soda than they would have been in the Oval Office. And the more often a president comes in contact with the public, the more likely he is to run across people who will speak openly with him. Unfortunately, this happens less and less given the security demands of the modern day presidency. [As I type this, I am looking out my window at the grounds where Woodrow Wilson mingled with voters during his 1916 re-election campaign.]

This is why it is increasingly important that presidents (and other elected officials) make sure their circle of advisors includes at least one or two people who are free to speak their mind without fear of repercussion. As to Obama, Alter claims that there are “very few people” within the White House who “are willing to tell him hard truths.” So maybe the president is in need of a court jester, a.k.a. Tom Fool (after Thomas Skelton, one of the last persons to hold the official title of “licensed fool”).

Jesters were de rigueur for the nobility through the early Renaissance. Unlike the common conception of them as simply clowns, jesters were valued members of a monarch’s court. While their prime responsibility was to entertain, jesters were also respected as sounding boards on important issues of the day. Basically, the jester was given license to speak his mind and was frequently the only advisor the monarch could trust to give an honest evaluation of the situation.

Of course, the “licensed fool” has some modern-day analogies – Stephen Colbert comes to mind. But all of these contemporary jesters exist outside the inner sanctum of power. If I may take this idea in a more serious direction, it is important for any leader to have an honest sounding board. And even if a president is surrounded by strong nay-saying counselors, they are also removed from the everyday concerns of citizens by virtue of their position in the halls of power.

Certainly, public opinion polls have been used to fill the void – and the current president appears to use them more than his predecessors. But poll results are cold measures in many ways detached from the concerns of the real people that underlie the percentages.

The conundrum is how a president keeps tabs on the public mood in an authentic way. Maybe the president should consider establishing an official advisor or council of advisors, drawn from the heartland of this country, whose sole purpose is to tell it like it is.

Or perhaps it’s time to bring back the court jester. No world leader should be without one.