August 1, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: Odds, pollster favored positive response to casino query

Mike Tipping

Backers of a new casino proposal in Lewiston should be very happy with the press coverage of the poll they released last week.

After they announced the results, the Sun Journal headline read, "Casino backers release poll showing statewide support." The same piece was picked up in the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald. Thousands across the state heard about the popularity of the idea of building a casino in Lewiston.

Casino backers should be most happy that no one realized that the whole thing was a sham.

Even a cursory look shows that the survey was a Potemkin poll, constructed and run not to gather legitimate public opinion, but solely to boost the pro-casino side of the upcoming referendum.

A few months ago, I wrote a column about how to evaluate political polls and included a checklist that reporters and other political observers can follow in order to evaluate the legitimacy of polls like this one. Among the information that should be revealed is a full description of the organizations that sponsored and ran the poll, the methods they used to conduct it, the wording and order of the questions and information about who they polled.

The Sun Journal article on the casino poll doesn't contain full information in any of these areas, but what it does contain about question wording is pretty damning. Here's the question that was asked:

"Would you support a casino and conference center to be located in the Lewiston-Auburn downtown area, given that the project has been approved by a two-to-one vote by the people of Lewiston, has been approved unanimously by the city council, and is a part of the city of Lewiston's master plan to redevelop and revitalize the Lewiston riverfront, and where the proceeds would go to statewide economic development, including other downtowns across the state, for road repairs, railroads, the fishing industry and tourism, as well as to fund programs for seniors and veterans?"

As a result of asking this question to 300 "voters," the pro-casino group Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC found that 55 percent supported their proposal and 33 percent were opposed.

Based on the wording, I'm shocked that the results aren't even more lopsided. Who are these 33 percent who hate economic development, Maine's fishing industry, seniors and veterans?

The point of a political poll is to predict how people think about an issue, how they will vote, or how they react to information. I guess this poll might be useful as an intellectual exercise -- to find out how people might view the issue on some other planet where they're bombarded with only positive information about a casino, but it has no real relevance to the vote that will take place this November.

If the point of the poll was to predict how people will vote, you'd think they'd simply use the proposed referendum question: "Do you want to allow a casino with table games and slot machines in Lewiston?"

There are polls that test messages and see how people react, but an honest pollster or sponsoring organization will make that distinction, and the point of the poll, as clear as possible. To do otherwise is polling malpractice.

Although the question itself should disqualify this poll from the kind of coverage it received, there are other aspects that are sketchy as well.

For instance, the pollster, which pro-casino spokesman and ex-legislator Stavros Mendros lists as Ames and Associates, doesn't seem to exist. It neither appears in a Google search nor the state registry of corporations. They also aren't registered with the Association of Public Opinion Professionals and haven't conducted any other public polling that I can find.

According to Mendros, Patty Ames is the firm's principle and did polling for 2006 gubernatorial candidate Dave Emery, but Ames isn't listed as a pollster in Maine campaign expenditure reports for any candidate in the past 10 years.

Mendros was able to provide me with the basic results of the poll and said it was his understanding that it used live callers and that there was some kind of screening done for likely voters, but even he was unsure about aspects of sample selection and methodology.

A message I left at the number he gave me for Ames was not returned.

Public opinion researchers, through their work, claim the profound ability to channel the voice of the people on some of the most important issues in our society. Transparency in their methods, results and identity is the least we should ask of them.

 

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com

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