This year, there have been a couple notable instances of a political operatives and leaders being caught flat-footed by bad polling. San Diego Republicans are still trying to figure out what went wrong when a poll indicated that City Council candidate April Boling had a commanding lead over Marti Emerald in the District 7 race. Emerald, of course, ended up with the job.
Local pollster John Nienstedt, who runs the firm Competitive Edge, has found another outrageous reading of voter sentiment. This time, Chula Vista taxpayers paid for it.
Chula Vista city leaders, hoping to gauge whether their constituents would go for an emergency sales tax measure, hired the firm EMC Market and Opinion Research to poll the city’s voters.
EMC reported that 61 percent of the voters it surveyed would support the sales tax increase and 5 percent were leaning that way — in other words, 66 percent of the people were positive on it.
When voters actually cast their ballots, the measure to increase the tax was slaughtered at the ballot box by the exact opposite proportion: 67 percent of voters rejected it.
So what happened? Nienstedt asked Chula Vista to tell him how much the poll had cost the city’s taxpayers, who are watching their elected leaders scramble to roll back the excesses of the past few years. The poll cost $19,800 to conduct.
Nienstedt said that a poll — no matter who paid for it — should never be that far off the mark when compared to the end results of an election.
I asked if it was possible that things changed dramatically between January when the poll was conducted and May when all the ballots were collected (the ballots were mailed to residents).
“Things change. But things don’t change that much,” Nienstedt said.
Nienstedt said that he thought the polling firm, EMC, had a specialty in helping municipalities raise taxes or other similar efforts and that this led to a “house bias” that may have skewed the results.
“They didn’t know Chula Vista, they didn’t know San Diego. Maybe they weren’t asking the right questions because they don’t know the lay of the land,” Nienstedt said.
Obviously, it’s in Nienstedt’s interest for local people looking for polls to use local pollsters like, say, him. But he makes a good case: Either Chula Vista’s voters had a collective revelation in the months before the vote or the pollsters completely misread them.
I called EMC principal Alex Evans at his office in Oakland and left a message Tuesday. I’ll let you know if I hear what he thinks happened.