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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; C01

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.

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."

Controversial expansion

"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."

Candidates have notably shown less reluctance citing Rasmussen's work, when convenient.

"Rasmussen Poll Shows Carly Fiorina Closing the Gap With Barbara Boxer," the Fiorina campaign announced in a June 11 statement. On May 27, the campaign of Linda McMahon, the Republican nominee in the Connecticut Senate race, griped about a Quinnipiac University poll that showed her Democratic challenger, Richard Blumenthal, maintaining a healthy advantage despite mischaracterizing his military service. A Rasmussen poll "conducted last week showed Linda trailing Blumenthal by just three points," McMahon's campaign argued.

On June 3, after Rasmussen measured the race again, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee rebutted: "Even Rasmussen has Blumenthal with 20+ lead on McMahon."

From phones to laptops

Rasmussen's business model is blooming just as the polling industry is withering.

"I don't think the Rasmussen method is going to be the dominant method," said Penn, who was Bill Clinton's pollster in the White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton's in the 2008 primary. "The next presidential election is probably the last presidential election where phone polling is the dominant methodology."

For all his differences with the polling establishment, Rasmussen's business is just as dependent on people answering the home phone, more so because a federal law has banned "robo-polls" from calling cellphones.

"When you were growing up, you screamed, 'I got it, I got it,' and raced your sister to the telephone," said Jay Leve, who runs SurveyUSA, a Rasmussen competitor who uses similar automated technology. "Today, nobody wants to get the phone."

Leve thinks telephone polling, and the whole concept of "barging in" on a voter, is kaput. Instead, polls will soon appear in small windows on computer or television screens and respondents will reply at their leisure. For Doug Rivers, the U.S. chief executive of YouGov, a U.K.-based online polling company that is building a vast panel of online survey takers, debating the merits of Rasmussen's method struck him as "a little odd given we're in 2010." Other pollsters are experimenting with smartphones.

Wherever polling goes next, Rasmussen insisted, he will be in the mix.

"We're working on something, and I'm hoping to roll it out this summer," he said, blocking further inquiry with the palm of his hand. "I can't say anything about what we're doing."

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