Pollster Scott Rasmussen's numbers are firing up Republicans and Democrats

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Here is a fun fact for those in the political polling orthodoxy who liken Scott Rasmussen to a conjurer of Republican-friendly numbers: He works above a paranormal bookstore crowded with Ouija boards and psychics on the Jersey Shore.

Here's the fact they find less amusing: From his unlikely outpost, Rasmussen has become a driving force in American politics.

As cash-strapped newspapers and television networks struggle to meet the growing demand for polls, Rasmussen, 54, is supplying reams of cheap, automated surveys that will measure -- and maybe move -- opinion, especially as primary season gives way to the November midterm elections. A co-founder of the sports network ESPN and former play-by-play broadcaster, Rasmussen is an articulate and frequent guest on Fox News and other outlets, where his nominally nonpartisan data is often cited to support Republican talking points. In October, he hired his own communications director to handle the daily deluge of press calls. He has a mini-TV studio in his office.

"I have seen a ratcheting-up," Rasmussen said on the sleepy Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend. A team of young employees worked busily at desks in an adjacent suite while Rasmussen, wearing a striped polo shirt, dad jeans and a Bluetooth device clipped to his right ear, showed off a high-tech television camera, aimed at a blue backdrop dotted with the Rasmussen Reports logo. A whiteboard nearby listed results from an oil spill-themed poll. ("Should digging be allowed?" "Obama handling incident?" "Memorial Day: Participate? Parade? Cookout?")

Rasmussen said he is simply a "scorekeeper," but his spike in clout has sharpened skepticism about how he tracks the dip in Democratic fortunes. Frustrated liberals suspect sorcery. Markos Moulitsas, the creator of the Daily Kos blog, has accused the pollster of "setting the narrative that Democrats are doomed" with numbers that fuel hours of Republican-boosting on talk radio and cable.

The old guard of the polling industry charges that Rasmussen merely makes educated guesses, like a market-savvy contestant on a political "The Price Is Right," and considers him a threat to the standards of an industry already facing existential challenges. Those traditional peers fear Rasmussen's rise signals the fall of the in-depth probing that politicians, policymakers and reporters have turned to for more than half a century.

"That has never been our niche," Rasmussen, who has a tanned dome and watery blue eyes, said of exhaustive surveys. Readying for a radio hit on another Senate contest, he added that he thinks Americans really are interested only in horse-race polling. "That's a reality you should deal with."

Cable-TV entrepreneur

Rasmussen found his public voice early. With the help of his father, a broadcaster, he taped a radio commercial at the age of 7. When his high school pursuits of hockey and playing guitar in a band called Rebel's Confederacy fell through, he did color commentary of the western Massachusetts high school hockey playoffs. He enrolled at the University of Connecticut, took a class with the pollster Everett Ladd, dropped out and did some play-by-play work at New England Whalers games.

Around the time that the Democratic pollster Mark Penn was pioneering overnight tracking polls in New York, cable television sparked Rasmussen's entrepreneurial spirit. In 1978, during a traffic jam on the way to the Jersey Shore, he and his father hashed out an idea for an all-sports network. Over the family's living-room coffee table, they decided to name it Entertainment Sports Programming Network, or ESPN. They invested $9,000, charged to a credit card, and brought on as an investor Getty Oil, which eventually put up millions.

The Rasmussens sold their interest in ESPN a few years later, making "some money, but not a lot," he said. The father-and-son team started some less successful ventures and had a falling out over what Rasmussen called unspecified "differences."

He graduated from DePauw University and moved to Charlotte. There he married, started a family and became a devout Methodist. He is given to quoting Scripture, including the principle: "Let every man be quick to listen, but slow to speak, and slow to anger." (James 1:19.)

In the mid-1990s, Rasmussen had discovered the business model of automated polling, and folks he polled heard a recording of his wife reading poll questions. In 1998, heavy traffic crashed his site when Rush Limbaugh unexpectedly told listeners to visit. Two years later, in August 2000, Bill O'Reilly invited him onto his show. He wrote columns for the conservative site WorldNetDaily in 2000. In 2001, he wrote a book advocating the privatization of Social Security.

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