UPDATE: Tom Bevan and the RCP Poll Accountability Project, the Chicago Way

By John Kass

October 13, 2022

In these final weeks before the midterm elections, much of the American landscape is already littered with broken political toys. All those frayed nerves and chewed up egos, and liar after liar after liar screaming with their hair on fire or running hysterically with their pants aflame.

Yet many Americans are already exhausted from politics and the screaming.  If you live in Chicago, once the Nov. 8 elections are finished, you get to do it all over again in the main event, the race for mayor.

Much of politics is a dark art, driven by ideas, personality and ambition, greed and the pursuit of power. And what of polls?

What makes a good poll? What makes a dishonest poll? And how are flawed polls used to shape the news?

Tom Bevan, co-founder and publisher of the Real Clear Politics , is this week’s guest on the Chicago Way podcast that I co-host along with WGN radio producer Jeff Carlin.

Bevan talked about a crisis in political polling.

“It’s one of the things we’re working on and we’re going to announce here (at Real Clear Politics) shortly, is a polling accountability initiative,” said Bevan on The Chicago Way.

I thought it might take a few days. But the Real Clear Politics Polling Accountability Initiative was formally announced Thursday morning.

According to the text of the announcement:

 “There have been many news stories over the last several months questioning whether polling is broken in the United States. While there are certainly challenges in the polling industry, it is not entirely accurate to suggest polling is broken. There are many quality pollsters and media outlets that are doing excellent work in a constantly changing technological and political environment. However, there are also pollsters and news organizations that are doing less-than-stellar work and, unfortunately, many of the polls from these organizations receive a disproportionate amount of attention.

:To help address this problem, in the coming weeks RealClearPolitics will be rolling out a beta version ranking polling organizations. RCP will rank pollsters by their performance in recent elections, and will of course evaluate their performance in the 2022 mid-term election in just under a month. RCP’s goal here is simple. Accuracy is the foundational bedrock of public trust. To that end we will be evaluating pollsters almost exclusively on one metric – accuracy in reflecting the actual results.

“Our hope is that by bringing attention to the most accurate polling firms and organizations, as well as shining a light on firms releasing less accurate surveys, we will help bring accountability to political polling that has been lacking in recent election cycles. It is our hope and belief that this effort will serve as a positive and constructive force that will improve the quality of political and media polling in the United States.”

All I can say is, it’s about time. Good for Real Clear Politics.

If you thought there was already enough insane shrieking in politics, just wait until RCP begins to hold pollsters publicly accountable and ranks their performances.

“If they get it right, they need to be rewarded for that and lifted up for getting it right” Bevan said on the Chicago Way. “And the ones who don’t get it right or miss badly, they need to be called out for that as well, there needs to be some sort of accountability and so and we’re working on that.  And that’ll be something that’ll go public here in the next few days.”

We hope you listen to the Chicago Way podcast. Just click on the links in this free bonus column.

Tom and I have known each other for years. He’s a friend. We met as guests years ago on  WGN’s “Extension 720” show hosted by professor Milt Rosenberg. I think we may have talked politics then, too.

There have always been scrupulous pollsters who try to accurately measure voter attitudes, and scrupulous journalists who wouldn’t attempt to twist numbers to serve their own political desires. And there have also been unscrupulous pollsters and sleazy journos who just can’t wait to manipulate and gaslight the public and shape the vote.

Years ago, there was a news poll that was reshaped to show that a sleazy candidate for governor had the edge. The news shop began writing news stories off the bad poll. It all figured into rationale for an endorsement.  Naturally, the sleazy candidate became the governor of Illinois. He vowed to govern as a reformer, but went to prison instead.

To do polling work properly, you must be able to speak to people and engage to measure their attitudes. But at least half the electorate are Republicans, and they avoid giving their opinions now. The White House routinely portrays conservatives as potential domestic terrorists, and fascist enemies of the people. They avoid pollsters and instead, simply wait quietly for Election Day.

But all that wreaks havoc with obtaining accurate predictions in this election cycle. And like that news shop and the sleazy governor I told you about, weasels offer their own polls to leverage news stories to advance their cause.

“That’s one of the points of discussion about this election, right?” said Bevan on the Chicago Way. “And how accurate are these polls and are they misrepresenting what’s actually what’s going on? Are they overstating Democrat support in some of these states?”

Bevan mentioned Robert Cahaly, founder of the well-respected polling firm The Tafalgar Group that accurately spotted Donald Trump voters active in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Florida and other key battleground states in 2016.

“Robert Cahaly was correct on Trump’s strength in 2016 and has been one of the most accurate pollsters in these three cycles, when some other pollsters couldn’t seem to figure out how to get in touch with the electorate. He thinks Biden and Democrat’s efforts to portray all Trump voters as fascists and election deniers and all these terrible things have driven them further underground,” Bevan said.

“So they’re not showing up, they’re not talking to pollsters, they’re not telling the truth about whether they’re likely to vote,” Bevan said. “They’re not even answering their phones.”

What does this mean for accurate polling in battleground states? It means uncertainty and chaos. It could very well mean the Chicagoization of the electorate. In the days of the old Democratic Machine, people avoided talking to anonymous strangers about political issues over the phone.

Why? They didn’t want to be viewed as beefers or rats. Or some thought, they were being set up. Their Democrat precinct captain might find out. Or, or saints preserve us, the Great and Powerful Mare Himself might hear of it.

Those days are gone, and the mayors are now weak, leaving only leftist jacobin trolls to enforce party discipline.  Oh, and street gangs are still around. Historically, the street gangs provided political street muscle. Years ago, the people put up with the heavy hand from City Hall because under Boss Richard J. Daley, downtown Chicago was safe.

Now, even downtown streets are no longer safe.

Yet rather than argue with a Karen and be charged with Thought Crime and get lit up on social media, or have the president call them a fascist simply because they’re Republicans who want tax cuts, law-and-order and a strong border, here’s what they do:

They disengage.

They just shut up and remain submerged until November. The last thing they want to do is take a voter survey. What they want to do is vote.

“You look at (Democrat Senator) Mark Kelly’s lead in Arizona that’s pegged in the polls at four points, but maybe he’s tied, or maybe he’s actually behind. I mean, who knows?” Bevan said. “In particular, the Fetterman (Senate) race, Pennsylvania’s been one of the places where Democratic support may have been overstated recently by 4 or 5 points,” Bevan said. “And if that’s the case, (Republican Senate candidate) Mehmet Oz would be ahead in that race right now. Not by much but it would be a really, really close race. Again, it’s unknowable, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

And out of chaos, Real Clear Politics hopes to provide some order.

“It’s one of the things we’re working on and we’re going to announce shortly,” Bevan said, “is a polling accountability initiative to hold some of these pollsters accountable and responsible for the good work that they do. If they get it right, they need to be rewarded for that and lifted up for getting it right and the ones who don’t get it right or miss badly, they need to be called out for that as well, there needs to be some sort of accountability and so and we’re working on that.

That’ll be something that’ll go public here in the next few days.”

Why is it important?

Because elections have consequences said the guy with the big ears from Chicago, don’t they? What’s in the balance isn’t just a patronage job for some idiot brother-in-law, but how the nation will order itself after the current crisis and chaos.

“The problem is that people have lost faith in the polls, they just have they just look at them and say they’re all crap,” Bevan said. ” (Voters say) ‘It’s just junk don’t pay attention to them.’ That’s a problem. That’s a problem for the polling industry, obviously it’s not great for us as a website that aggregates polling data and information, we want it to be as accurate as possible.”

The Real Clear Average of Polls is an important news tool. But there are unscrupulous operatives, who when not in the henhouse sucking eggs, may be trying to manipulate news coverage by offering up mythic polls, making it easier for them to gaslight the people.

“Our averages are only as good as the polls that are contained in them. And some of the polls in there suck and are way off, that’s going to affect our averages…and we’re going to be off,” Bevan said. “The idea behind this is to get the polling industry to take a hard look and be as accurate and transparent as possible. It’s in everybody’s interest quite frankly, for all these pollsters to get their act together and be as accurate as they can. And some of them, as I said, some have been very good. And some have not been very good over the past few cycles.”

Bevan mentioned Center Street PAC and one of its front-men, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh. I know Walsh, a slippery chameleon and self-promoter who was once a tea-party supporter, and a populist, then became a Republican conservative, then a failed talk show host and failed presidential candidate, cable news personality and now he’s a loud Never-Trumper.

“They’ve endorsed (Sen.) Mark Kelly in Arizona and (Democrat) Tim Ryan in Ohio,” Bevan said. “And they’re releasing these insane polls. They’ve got John Fetterman up 19 points in Pennsylvania and Tim Ryan up 11 points in Ohio. It’s absurd.”

“They do this for two reasons. One is to obviously to influence the narrative to the best of their ability and also to manipulate the poll averages. Some other groups are using them. We’re not, because they’re so transparently ridiculous. We’re not going to participate in that fraud by putting those folks in our averages and having them move our averages two or three points to the Democrats’ favor. It’s just not going to happen,” Bevan said.

In polling, there are the hustlers and the sharpies. And legitimate pollsters, some of them from large media organizations, some from universities. I’ve worked with legit pollsters. I’ve known some illegit pollsters.

Bevan is absolutely correct in this. All of us involved with news, from news consumers to news producers should applaud RCP’s concern for credibility. I only wish newspaper editors and publishers had been as concerned years ago, when  their newsrooms began drifting away.

Flawed polling methods create undercounts of voting blocs. And that shapes political news coverage leading up to the elections.

“But something needs to happen so pollsters are held accountable for their work, both the good and the bad,” Bevan said.

Yes.

Accountability and transparency in the dark arts of politics?

That’s almost revolutionary.

-30-

(Copyright 2022 John Kass)