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Don't Ask Me

As Fewer Cooperate on Polls, Criticism and Questions Mount

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page C01

Three dozen protesters gathered outside the Minneapolis Star Tribune building a month ago. They glowered and pounded on the windows. They carried signs calling the newspaper the "Star and Sickle." They shouted "Liberal!" at staffers leaving the building.

A few days before the demonstration, Ron Eibensteiner, chairman of the state Republican Party, had demanded that the publisher fire Rob Daves, the paper's longtime pollster.

After the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a poll showing John Kerry with a 9-point lead over the president, pro-Bush demonstrators gathered outside its offices demanding that Rob Daves, the newspaper's pollster, be fired. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rob Daves has got to go!" the pickets chanted.

A few days later, Eibensteiner amended that request: If you will not fire Daves, at least suspend the paper's 60-year-old Minnesota Poll until after the election.

Daves's offense: a poll the previous week suggested that Democrat John Kerry led President Bush by 9 percentage points in Minnesota while subsequent surveys by others suggested a tie or a narrower Kerry lead.

It's tough being a pollster these days, even in Minnesota. "It's the rhetoric of mean-spiritedness, and it's just gotten worse and worse and worse," says Daves, a mild-mannered North Carolina native.

Across the country, other pollsters are hearing similarly smash-mouth attacks. "The polls are wrong. They are all over the map like diarrhea," rages filmmaker Michael Moore, who took time out from bashing Bush to bash the polls in a posting on his Web site. "You are being snookered if you believe any of these polls."

Last month, the independent liberal group MoveOn.org attacked the venerable Gallup Organization in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times.

"Why Does America's Top Pollster Keep Getting It Wrong?" the headline fumed. The advertisement attacked the way Gallup defines likely voters for including too many Republicans and took a swipe at George Gallup Jr., son of the poll's founder and an evangelical Christian who no longer plays a role in the company.

"Never saw anything like it," says veteran pollster Andrew Kohut. "People have their guns drawn to a greater extent than usual and they're shooting at us."

This year's election-fueled furies are only the latest woes to befall the polling profession, already under siege and, some fear, on its way to extinction.

As the director of polling for The Washington Post, I join my fellow pollsters in the hospitality rooms at professional meetings to drink cheap wine and listen as they talk nervously about the present and agonize about the future:

Two consecutive Election Day debacles have shaken public confidence in exit polls, once viewed as the crown jewel of political surveys.

Cell phones, Caller ID and increasingly elaborate call screening technologies make it harder than ever to reach a random sample of Americans. Prompted by the popularity of do-not-call lists, a few state legislatures are considering laws that would lump pollsters in with telemarketers and bar them from calling people at home.

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