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It’s Now Public: Editors Rejigger Polls

With the poll-obsessed talk of the past six months, those who raise questions about problems with them are often subjected to scorn and derision on the grounds that they are simply objecting to surveys whose results they don’t like.

The objection is beside the point; who else but someone who is unhappy with a poll’s result would bother to raise the hood and look at the engine and see where it might be busted?

The leading objection raised this year is to polls whose findings suggest a more Democratic turnout in states than is likely to be the case. I go into that in a column today in the New York Post. 

A stunning tale today in the Salt Lake Tribune, however, reveals the dirty little secret of polls paid for by the media. The results are, in effect, owned by the media, and the media can insist that they be rejiggered.

The Tribune published a poll done by the respected Mason-Dixon firm that showed a 10-point lead for the county’s Republican candidate for mayor. The poll was released on Thursday. Later, editors for the paper objected to the results on the grounds that the poll had an insufficient number of Democrats in its sample:

Tribune editor Nancy Conway acknowledged the problem.

“We are as concerned about this as anyone,” she said Monday. “As soon as we understood there was a problem we worked to correct it.

“We had no reason to doubt the poll until we saw others conducted over the same period and could see differences in the numbers. That raised questions,” Conway said. “We contacted our pollster who did additional research on Salt Lake County demographics and found there was indeed a flaw.

“We knew right then that we needed to correct our mistake and that’s what we are doing,” Conway said.

And so it was done, as the story explains.

The Salt Lake Tribune does not appear to have endorsed a candidate in the mayoral race, but it is a liberal paper in a conservative state that earned headlines nationwide for endorsing Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. So perhaps one can presume its editors favor the Democrat.

To recap: A newspaper pays for a poll. It doesn’t like the look of the results. So it asks the pollster to reexamine them and alter them by changing his “weights.” He does so; he may agree with the call (as the Mason Dixon pollster says he does in the story) or he may be simply serving the interests of his paying client.

And it will do so based on the partisan split—the very controversy that is dismissed so cavalierly by media types.

We only know about this one because of the highly unusual circumstances of its revision. The question you have to ask yourself now is: How many times does this happen before a poll is published