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Pollster Scott Rasmussen's numbers are firing up Republicans and Democrats
His company kept growing, and in 2004 the Bush reelection campaign used a feature on his site that allowed customers to program their own polls. Rasmussen asserted that he never wrote any of the questions or assisted Republicans in any way, but by the 2008 presidential election his conservative bent was a kind of brand for him.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who worked on John McCain's presidential campaign, defended the integrity of Rasmussen's numbers. But he suggested that Rasmussen take on a Democratic partner to balance his analysis.
"He has got a conservative constituency, he has Fox News and the Washington Times and Drudge," said John Zogby, the pollster whose publicity-seeking business model is considered a forebear of Rasmussen's. "The conservative result is the one that is going to get a huge level of coverage."
"If it's in the news, it's in our polls" is the slogan for Rasmussen Reports. Now there are more polls than ever. Last August, Rasmussen announced an infusion of capital from the New York-based Noson Lawen Partners, which bolstered funding for national tracking polls, most notably the president's approval rating. His Web site claims more than 100,000 subscribers and features ads from the National Guard and Dockers. Rasmussen said he plans to expand the site to deliver more lifestyle and economic data. The political polling, he said, was the "low-hanging fruit."
That expansion has made some of the old guard queasy.
"The firm manages to violate nearly everything I was taught what a good survey should do," said Mark Blumenthal, a pollster at the National Journal and a founder of Pollster.com. He put Rasmussen in the category of pollsters whose aim, first and foremost, is "to get their results talked about on cable news."
Nate Silver, who runs the polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight, soon to be hosted on the Web site of the New York Times, faults Rasmussen for polling only likely voters, which reduces the pool to "political junkies."
"It paints a picture of an electorate that is potentially madder than it really is," agreed Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew Research Center and vice president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). "And potentially more conservative than it really is."
Rasmussen said he didn't take the criticism personally, but he grew visibly annoyed when asked why he didn't make his data -- especially the percentage of people who responded to his firm's calls -- more transparent.
"If I really believed for a moment that if we played by the rules of AAPOR or somebody else they would embrace us as part of the club, we would probably do that," he said, his voice taking on an edge. "But, number one, we don't care about being part of the club."
That irritation extended toward traditional news outlets -- including this one -- that have refused to cite his polls. As a result, he argued, newspapers and networks were ludicrously late in recognizing the rise of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. His polling detected that groundswell earlier than most competitors and set off alarm bells inside the Oval Office, according to a senior administration official, who would not be quoted by name discussing private deliberations within the White House.
"Even if you don't like our poll and think the activists are idiots for paying attention to us," he said, the results were "part of the discussion."