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Questions and Answers about the Huffington Acquisition

Topics: Arianna Huffington , Douglas Rivers , Huffington Post , Pollster.com

I want to try to answer some of the questions many of you have been asking about our acquisition by the Huffington Post, but I have to start with a personal story.

Seven years ago, I attended my first conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). I knew AAPOR well, and had long wanted to attend the annual conference, but until 2003 had never willing or able to devote the time and money necessary. One of the reasons I finally went was that I had been kicking around the idea -- "pipe dream" was probably more accurate at the time -- of starting a blog about polling. So I decided that attending the AAPOR conference would be a good way to get up to speed on the current methodologies and controversies.

As it happened, AAPOR had planned something bold for 2003: They invited the country's most prominent polling critic, Arianna Huffington, to be their plenary speaker. In 1998, Huffington had launched a "crusade" -- the Partnership for a Poll-Free America -- that urged her followers to hang up on pollsters in order to stop polls "at their source" because they "are polluting our political environment." In a 1998 column headlined "hang it up," she described herself as the "sworn enemy" of pollsters gathering at that year's AAPOR Conference, and hoped that "if all goes well" her crusade would spell the end of such meetings altogether.

What actually transpired was a fascinating and somewhat surprising discussion captured by the conflicting media accounts at the the time. AP's Will Lester wrote that although the pollsters were "prepared for the worst, they got charmed instead," as Huffington "set aside her apocalyptic view of the polling profession," and focused instead on points of agreement. An account in Businessweek took a different tack, noting that by evening's end, "Huffington was on the defensive, dodging accusations that he had her facts wrong and was protesting that she had been misunderstood." As an eyewitness, I can testify that both accounts were accurate. Either way, it was easily the best attended and most provocative event at any AAPOR Conference in my memory (I rescued the full transcript of the plenary session, once posted to AAPOR's web site, from the Internet Archive).

But let me stop there. If anyone had told me during that conference that (a) I would find time to start the MysteryPollster blog a year later, (b) that the blog would be a success, (c) that it would ultimately lead to a day job publishing Pollster.com, (d) that Pollster.com would win AAPOR's prestigious Innovator's Award, (e) that Pollster would eventually be sold to Arianna Huffington and (f) that I'd be truly excited by that prospect, well...let's just say that even after seven years the events of the last week or two have been a bit surreal.

So with that in mind, let's review some of the questions that friends and readers have been asking over the last 24 hours:

1) So what about Huffington's "Poll Free America" Crusade? First, for the record, I have never been a fan of the crusade: not in 2003, not when Arianna renewed it in early 2008 and not now. Even if the intended victims were, as she explained in 2003, only those polls "that are about the political questions of the day," a truly effective campaign to get Americans to hang up on surveys would also ensnare surveys that track consumer confidence, the costs of government programs, the incidence of illness and disease and the health needs of all Americans.

But that said, I can also tell you that Arianna Huffington has given her unqualified support to our longstanding mission to "aggregate polls, point out the limitations of them and demand more transparency," as she told the New York Times. She has also given us the editorial independence to disagree if we deem it appropriate, as I did in the previous paragraph. I also understand that there was a larger point she has been making all along that is in sync with our mission (something I noted in a column last year). As I said in the press release that went out today, I have long believed that to use polling data effectively, consumers need to understand its power as well as its limitations. That's what we have always been about, and that's the mission that Huffington Post has unambiguously endorsed.

So what does Arianna have to say about the apparent contradiction between her anti-polling crusade and buying a site named Pollster.com? Or, as Huffington Post commenter Marlyn, who said she "took Arianna's pledge to never participate in polls" asked last night, "What am I to do now?"

I asked Arianna how she would answer Marlyn's question. Here, via email, is her answer:

I've been a longtime critic of the accuracy of polls and how they're misused by the media, which continue to treat poll results as if Moses just brought them down from the mountaintop. That's why we launched the "Say No to Pollsters" campaign on HuffPost in 2008. And it's why I wanted to work with Mark and Pollster. Since it's clear that polls and polling are not going to go away - indeed, if anything, the media have only gotten more addicted to political coverage dominated by polling - we need to make sure that polls are as accurate as possible and that they are put in the proper larger context. So, though we come at it from different perspectives, Mark and I -- and the rest of the HuffPost team - share the same goal: we are committed to pulling the curtain back on how polls are conducted, and, in the process, make polls more transparent, help the public better understand how polls are created, and clarify polls' place in our political conversation.

2) Aren't you worried about Huffington's partisanship? Or to quote Pollster commenter IWMPB, who is troubled by our move and the greater "partisan division" of the news that it appears to herald: "So much for objectivity...whether or not it's true, perception is reality."

There is no question, given the comments here, in my inbox and elsewhere, that many of you are concerned by the perceived partisan slant at Huffington Post. I have no doubt that these perceptions are the biggest risk we are taking with this move, and represent a huge change from the inside-the-beltway prestige of The National Journal. The questions so many of you are asking are fair. My only hope is that those who have come to value Pollster will judge us on the basis of the work we do going forward and not pre-conceived notions about what this move may or may not mean in the future.

That said, concerns about my objectivity were equally valid when I started blogging six years ago while still actively polling on behalf of Democratic candidates and after more than 20 years as a pollster and campaign staffer for Democrats. Such concerns were equally valid three years ago, when we launched Pollster.com, a venture owned and backed by an Internet research company. I would never claim to be without bias, but I have worked hard from day one to be thorough, accurate and fair. If Pollster has a reputation for straight-shooting commentary and non-partisan poll aggregation, it is because we never took our eyes off those goals.

That's why we have regular contributors who have worked for both Republicans (Kristen Soltis, Steve Lombardo, Bob Moran) and Democrats (myself and Margie Omero) as well as those from academia (Charles Franklin, Brendan Nyhan, Brian Schaffner). That is also why all of these individuals have assured me that will continue to contribute once we launch our new virtual home at Huffington Post.

And one trivial question that keeps coming up:

3) Did this sale make you rich? Sadly...no. Pollster and its assets were purchased from YouGov/Polimetrix, not me, though I am privileged to have a stable new job in the news media doing something I love.

And unfortunately, despite the sale, Pollster.com resulted in a net loss for our former owners. Doug Rivers, the CEO of YouGov/Polimetrix, helped us launch Pollster.com with the hope of doing a service to the survey profession and making a profit. We succeeded, arguably, at the former but not the latter.

Which reminds me that, before ending this post, I need to offer thanks to two important sets of people.

First, to Doug Rivers, who first invested in Pollster.com despite strong advice that a business model would be elusive and who continued to support us long after it was clear he would never see a dime of profit. All along he kept his promise of total editorial independence, never once reaching out to complain if we wrote or linked to something critical of his business. Thanks also to the technology staff at YouGov/Polimetrix who helped keep our site up and running even though that task was far down their daily to-do lists.

Second, thanks to all of my valued friends from National Journal and Atlantic Media (too many to name, but they know who they are) but most of all to Kevin Friedl, Tom Madigan and Deron Lee who for two years took my typo-ridden copy and molded into weekly columns we could all be proud of. I will miss your skilled editing more than you know.

We are going to be moving tomorrow, so time will be limited, but if there are more questions -- and I'm sure there will be -- I will try to answer them in the comments below.

 

Comments
Xenobion:

I eagerly await your move Mark. As I said before, what efficacy do we have in polling if we don't respect the transparency of it. It is not within your best interests to skew data, results, or be unabashedly biased. I think moving to the HuffPost you will continue doing what you do and frankly... the numbers don't lie.

Politico does it
Real Clear Politics does it
They all do it...

Polling aggregators have been integrated into mass media and exposing people to this system I think is good for media and polling. People should realize your integrity and interpretation as a blogger and not some partisan hack.

Anyways, godspeed Mark and I hope you make the move soon that while I've enjoyed everything here on Pollster... I have not been a fan of the site layout (sorta klunky, slow to post, and hard to refind your threads to comment back at people). So make the change soon and make responding to polls more user friendly!

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RS:

Look forward to the new site, Mark. I did not know about Huffington's anti-poll crusade, but I'm sure your efforts will help her see the good side of polls :-)
Perhaps an aside - TalkingPointsMemo's charts seem disconcertingly similar to Pollster.com plots. Is there a connection?

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RWCOLE:

Will you continue to include Rasmussen results in you poll averages?

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RWCOLE:

Will you continue to include Rasmussen results in your poll averages?

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Marcello Mastroianni:

Thing is, Mark, blogging isn't just about content, it's also about community. There was a time when it was possible to have a sensible discussion on this website without engaging in the personal attacks and hackneyed insults that are so pervasive on most other sites. That's changed over the last few months, which is a huge disappointment, and the move to HuffPo is certainly going to make a bad situation worse. I certainly hope that you will continue to produce intelligent content, but I'm not sure if you will have any intelligent readers.

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tom brady:

I just want to add my support to Marcello's comments - I came to Pollster.com for the nonpartisan analysis that Mark provided, but also because the comments sections were usually (not always!) dominated by smart people who were more interested in political analysis than in the echo-chamber babble that dominates sites like 538.com or the Huffington Post. It will be a shame if that is lost in the move. The number of places where people of different partisan stripes can engage in reasoned and non-vituperative debate is already few, and I fear we may have lost another.

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She had been "misunderstood" as you so stated, which is why she supports other "misunderstood" causes that support human maimings and death.

The Huffington Post is nothing more than a "politically correct" institution with zero fire power in originality, distinction, or God help us "investigative" journalism.

The author of "Pigs at the Trough" is long gone... So sorry to inform!

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I had forgotten to delete you from my RSS feed list... this post has apologist written all over it. Its patently absurd to pretend that any sort of organization that is owned by a bunch of partisan hacks like Huffington wont be affected by the bent.

People like me, who are serious about polling, will just have to add that asterisk next to everything we see from you, just like we have next to places like Rasmussen and Polling Research 2000.

I hope that steady income you refer to was worth your credibility.

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Huda:

I find all these hysterical personal attacks and pessimism by some of the commentators hilarious. At lease have some facts to back up your paranoia. Just because a given media is political slanted one way, does not de-legitimatizes them. Nate Silver is liberal leaning, yet his polling analysis is the best in the electoral field. Rusmussen is obviously conservative leaning, yet no one have accused him of making up numbers.

Its the delusion that is mainstream America to always have a fit over anything that has a left leaning perspectives. Talk about a victory by corporate media that is more about being a talking puppet for those in power.

I do not like Huffington post mostly because its tabloid media disguised as legitimate journalism. Then again that's what most American media is today, with few individuals with actual news cred. Hence, why I do not take any given media outlet as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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hardheadedliberal:

Best of luck in the new setting, Mark. Keep up the good work!

When you get a chance after the move, I know I am not the only reader who would be interested in your assessment of the wording of the DADT survey, link attached:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/34115841/2010-DoD-Comprehensive-Review-Survey-of-Uniformed-Active-Duty-and-Reserve-Service-Members

As a moderately informed consumer of poll design information, to me the survey appeared to be a good faith effort to obtain opinion information. But (1) I am not expert enough to judge whether the survey could have been better worded in important respects; and (2) I may have missed some major points, anyway.

So I hope you have time at some point to share your own assessment of this instrument.

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