3/3: The Devil Is in the Poll

Sure, all polls are snapshots in time.  And, because the political world doesn’t pause to allow for the several days it takes to complete the requisite number of voter interviews, occasionally, we get caught mid-poll.  Typically, we adjust and move on.  This was not as easily accomplished, however, in Marist’s most recent poll of New York State voters … a survey that will be forever remembered at the survey center as “The Poll from Hell.”

miringoff-caricature-430It is said that the devil is in the details.  It seems he has taken control of the headlines, as well.  What started out on Monday night, February 22nd as a regular measurement of New York’s electorate had become something far different when the results were finally released on March 2nd.

At poll kickoff last Monday, we expected to poll New York voters through Wednesday and start a national survey Thursday night. Tabulate and write the statewide results on Thursday, and, release the results on Friday morning.  How was Governor Paterson doing in his anticipated contest against Andrew Cuomo?  Was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand vulnerable to a challenge from former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr.?  Was New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman a threat to disrupt the U.S. Senate picture against Gillibrand or Ford?  But, the devil was already plotting against us.

We got off to a good start.  We completed 292 interviews on Monday and felt everything was on track.  Our scheduling tsunami was nowhere on our radar screen. And, then came record-breaking snows.  Tuesday night’s polling was cancelled due to poor weather. Our optimism to get back on pace following a successful Wednesday night polling session (we now stood at a respectable 646 completed interviews) was short-lived.  Snow knocked us off the map on Thursday and Friday … 154 interviews short of our original goal.

Then, things went even faster downhill.  We were in the middle of a five-way staff conference call on Friday morning planning how to dig our way out of this project when our director of Interactive Media Mary Azzoli alerted us that the scandal-plagued David Paterson had pulled out of the governor’s race.  What to do, now? Should he resign? Could he govern effectively? Was Cuomo now a shoo-in?  The political world, as far as the governor’s race, had turned upside down. At least, the Senate race was intact. Satan, were you eavesdropping?

We turned to Plan B. (it was really Plan Z, but I’ll spare you all the details).  In pollster-ese, we would resume polling on Monday with a separate survey of New York voters on the question of the governor’s political future, include questions about the Gillibrand-Ford Democratic Senate primary (we didn’t have a large enough sample of Democrats from the previous week), eliminate the now-outdated Paterson-Cuomo primary matchup, and take the 646 completed interviews from the previous week as a done deal on the remaining approval ratings and general election toss-ups.  Our ducks were in order again.

The phone room was humming on Monday night.  With the goal line in sight, we took a peek at the preliminary results.  To our surprise New Yorkers didn’t want Governor Paterson to resign. Nothing like a counter-intuitive finding to get our conceptual juices churning. About half an hour later, the pitchfork landed again.  The news hit that Harold Ford Jr. decided not to enter the race. Here we go again.

As midnight on Monday approached, we were putting the finishing touches on our Tuesday morning release.  We would lead with the all-important results on whether Paterson should resign.  To avoid being misleading we would also highlight the public’s concern over his lack of governing ability. That provided the appropriate context. As for the non-existent Gillibrand-Ford Senate race, we called it “What Might Have Been.” It stayed newsworthy thanks to Ford’s claim that he would have prevailed in a race against Gillibrand.  The poll showed the opposite to be the case.  We made it!

Of course, on Tuesday night Mort Zuckerman announced he would not seek the Gillibrand Senate seat.  Nice try, Lucifer.  But, we had already released those poll results earlier in the day.

At the Marist Poll, we jokingly say that no two poll projects are ever alike.  This time to prove the point, the devil had his hand in it. But, we persevered and along the way, paid the devil his due.