New poll’s validity panned by experts

Candidates who got good news from web survey play it up

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

David W. Hedrick, the outspoken Tea Party Republican who is running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, was exhilarated last month after someone e-mailed him the results of a new poll that appeared to show him running neck-and-neck with state Rep. Jaime Herrera and far ahead of David Castillo, his two Republican opponents in the primary race.

The July 7 results showed Hedrick with 17 percent of the vote, Herrera with 18 percent and Castillo with just 9 percent in a match-up of all six candidates.

The Camas ex-Marine quickly posted the new numbers on his campaign website, calling the result “an astonishing show of grass-roots momentum,” and began referring to himself as “the front-runner” in speeches and campaign materials.

More recent numbers generated by the same pollster show Hedrick with 24 percent of the vote, Herrera with 22 percent and Castillo with just 5 percent, to 35 percent for Democratic front-runner Denny Heck.

But the source of Hedrick’s information, The Washington State Political Polls, was unknown in the state until last month and has zero credibility with polling professionals.

According to its website, it’s part of a national survey company with clients in the consumer products industry, which expanded in 2007 into the business of conducting political surveys. This year it added the races for Washington’s nine congressional districts and the U.S. Senate to its list.

Its website says no paid political interests are involved in the surveys and it has no affiliation with any candidate.

It polls from an unspecified database within the state, giving “those selected for the survey” a website link and a survey code that allow them to answer the survey questions online. It claims a return rate of 10 to 15 percent, and, in the most recent 3rd District results, a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

No contact information is available on the website. And whoever registered its domain, washingtonstatepolls.com, opted for domain privacy service, which keeps personal information from being linked to the site.

“That right there is enough to disqualify it as a legitimate poll,” said Stuart Elway, director of the respected Elway Poll based in Seattle. “If they are not willing even to disclose who is sponsoring it or where it comes from, let alone its methodology, it is so far from the standards of the American Association of Public Opinion Research that it shouldn’t be paid any attention to.”

One of the basic tenets of scientific polling is disclosure, Elway said. “You have to disclose what your methods are and what database you are using. If you don’t know who is in that database, and who is responding, you can’t draw any conclusions from it.”

Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist who heads the similarly named Washington Poll at the UW, said there’s no guarantee that those responding to the Washington State Political Polls are even registered voters. “It’s not random or scientifically administered,” he said.

The only other 3rd District polling data made public so far are from a poll commissioned by Herrera’s campaign in mid-June. The poll of 300 likely voters in the 3rd District, conducted by Portland pollster Moore Associates, showed Herrera with 26 percent of the vote and Hedrick and Castillo tied with 8 percent each. Nearly half of those polled said they were undecided at that point.

Hedrick isn’t the only candidate using the numbers generated by the new Internet poll. U.S. Senate candidate Clint Didier, also a Tea Party Republican, has posted the numbers prominently on his website.

“The latest poll on the U.S. Senate race has Clint ahead of Dino Rossi, and shows Clint posting a 10 percent increase from a month ago,” Didier’s website announced on Aug. 4. According to the survey by The Washington State Political Polls, Didier would have won 18.8 percent of the vote to 18.1 percent for Rossi and 41.7 percent for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray if the primary had been held Aug. 1.

A late July poll by Rasmussen Polls showed Murray edging Rossi 49 percent to 47 percent and defeating Didier 48 percent to 45 percent in a head-to-head general election contest.

Hedrick defended his use of the Washington State Political Polls numbers.

“We don’t know if any poll is a legitimate poll,” he said. “Regardless of whether the poll is accurate or not accurate, the information we are getting on the street” confirms his frontrunner status, Hedrick said.

He said it’s “not my job” to vet the poll.

Last week conservative political blogs and the Victoria Taft talk radio show were abuzz with questions about whether Hedrick himself had some connection to the Washington State Political Polls. A Vancouver web developer said he had discovered that the poll’s website had the same domain registrar, was hosted on the same server, had the same block of IP numbers and bore the same programming “footprint” and coding as at least three Hedrick websites.

Matt Trent, a network engineer for Lewis County who is volunteering his technical expertise in the Hedrick campaign, said that’s not surprising since the domain registrar has hundreds of thousands of customers and the hosting company has thousands of IP addresses.

“There isn’t anything that relates it to us,” he said. “If we were going to try to pull off a hoax, we could do it much better than that.”

Trent called the Washington State Political Polls website “amateur.” But he added, “We haven’t seen anything that indicates this is an intentional hoax. It’s an Internet poll. All polls we take with a grain of salt. I don’t think anyone is trying to pull a fast one.”

“The reason we use it is because of the results,” he said. “We think Castillo is fading.”

Castillo said he doesn’t consider the poll valid. He cited its results in the 7th Congressional District, which covers Seattle and some of its suburbs. The poll showed veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott — who won reelection in 2008 with 84 percent of the vote — supported by 37 percent, with 32 percent supporting independent candidate Bob Jeffers-Schroder, a retired software engineer whose campaign has reported no campaign contributions.

“I don’t believe the electorate in downtown Seattle for Jim McDermott is 50-50,” Castillo said.

“There is still no legitimate way to do an Internet poll,” he said. “If (Hedrick) wants to run his campaign pretending that this poll is legitimate, more power to him. The only poll that matters is on Election Day.”

Paul Suarez of The Columbian contributed to this story.