Frank DeFilippo: The Insidious Side Effects of Political Polls

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). File photo

Ben Jealous is a sitting duck for this gilded age and a trio of telltale polls. The economy is roaring, jobs are plentiful and people are content. And, unfortunately for Jealous, polls can be self-fulfilling prophesies.

So it’s likely to turn out that the bloviated “blue wave” is little more than a handful of Democrats on a sugar high. The Maryland Democratic Party, however, cites as compelling evidence of the promised wave the 45,543 absentee ballots that Democrats have requested, double the number sought by Republicans and independents. Maybe they were moved by Taylor Swift’s lyrical mission statement.

It has been said, often enough, that polls are snapshots, not guaranteed results. The most recent polls were published, lickety-split, three in succession, showing Jealous 22 points (Goucher), 20 points (Washington Post-University of Maryland) and 18 points (Gonzales) behind the incumbent Republican governor of navy blue Maryland, Larry Hogan. They follow the unwritten law of polling that any two or more reputable polls conducted at about the same time will show essentially the same results.

Polls have insidious side-effects as well. They tend to either lull voters into following the results to side with an apparent winner or to assume a foregone conclusion or redundancy and stay home because their vote is not needed, the results are already decided. The prophesy is thus fulfilled.

In politics, as in sports, everybody loves a winner. So it is with the final rounds of polling that there’s a decided shift to Hogan – undecideds firming up, Hogan’s piling-on of derisive TV commercials on Jealous, even 2-1 majority Democrats breaching the party to sidle up to a Republican. There is more motivating the electorate than personalities and programs.

When prospective voters respond to poll questions, they are far less concerned with the state of the state than they are with the state of their lives. And they are usually validating what’s in their wallets rather than who’s in the State House. If their private lives are prospering, voters see little or no need for change. Voters tend to cast their ballots according to their circumstances and how they feel about themselves, their families and general surrounding and, these days, less about party

To address the question about the direction of the state, Hogan is the beneficiary of an overall economy that is grinding out jobs and revenue in one of the wealthiest states in America – A Triple-A bond rating and a rainy-day fund of $880 million, $400 million the state withheld from the Trump tax cut windfall and a $570 million surplus.

Much of this is way beyond Hogan’s control, though he gets credit because it’s happening on his watch, just as he gets blame for shortcomings. And Hogan gets bonus points because there’s been no scandal reported during his four years in office, only a mild dust-up over a transportation contract that was quickly withdrawn before it could smudge him or his administration.

In their quiet beginnings, polls used to be very private internal documents, their findings applied to detect candidates’ strengths and weaknesses as well as strategy papers to set the tone and tactic of campaigns. Only highly selective leaks appeared.

But polling went public in a very big way, far beyond the Gallup and Harris polls of earlier times, when news outlets and academic institutions joined the business of publishing survey results. It was at that point where public polls and political influence intersected.

Following publication of a poll, any poll, nearly every story contained a reference to the horse race results that reinforced an attitude toward this or that candidate in voters’ memory circuits, contributing further to the lemming effect of public polls.

The late Joseph Napolitan, a pioneer of political polling, observed: “The only practical reason to take a political poll is to obtain information that will help you win an election. If the poll won’t do that, you are better off spending your money on something else. Perhaps the least important information in a political poll is who is ahead at any given moment. Polls are not infallible, especially in primaries, or when they are taken before the campaign actually begins. I won’t run a campaign without adequate polling – but neither will I place total dependence on the polls. Nor will I make my polls public unless there is an unusually and extremely good reason for doing so.”

Read into that what you will, but no seasoned observer really expects Hogan to win by 22, or even 18 points. It is worth repeating that the one area polls cannot detect is voter turnout. Early voting, combined with Election Day voting, has made forecasting even more uncertain because of rolling counts and the last-minute flushing out of voters. So the projections in the polls are indications but highly uncertain final results and offer little but an ego-twitch for the numerical frontrunner.

Frank DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo

Hogan has run a relentless media campaign against Jealous and a parallel continuous loop of commercials burnishing his own image as a tax-cutting “bipartisan” governor – the result of having enough cash on hand to deliver whatever is necessary to win. And the rollout of public polls showing Hogan as a winner has been almost as endless as his TV ads.

Hogan’s own media campaign was reinforced by a supporting non-stop volley of attack ads sponsored independently by the Republican Governors Association. It mimicked Republican ads running in campaigns across the nation that portray Democratic candidates as extremists and radicals.

The repeated claim of bipartisanship is a tad over the top. Hogan learned long ago that the best way to beat Democrats is to act like one. That said, Hogan, like most nimble politicians, is a down-the-line partisan when he has the votes and bipartisan when he doesn’t. There has been an endless roundelay of vetoes and veto overrides during his four years as governor wherein Democrats have displayed their control over the agenda in Annapolis.

Hogan has deftly appropriated many of the cherished Democratic initiatives, such as the education “lock box” and called them his very own as an exemplar of his bipartisanship (Hogan proposed legislation to lock in casino revenues for education, but the ballot initiative accomplishing the same came from the Democrats).

As for cutting taxes and tolls, many of Hogan’s boasts are nibbles around the edges, and symbolic at best. For example, he brags about eliminating entry fees for veterans at state parks. (Here’s one veteran who’s never even been to a state park.) As for cutting tolls, Hogan is tampering with the state’s transportation bonding capacity by doing so. For every one dollar he reduces tolls, Hogan is reducing the state’s transportation bonding ability by $10, at the bonding ratio of 1X10.

Maybe that accounts for his rush to public-private partnerships to build toll roads. (A new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll revealed that a narrow majority of Maryland voters, by a margin of 50-44, oppose Hogan’s $9 billion proposal to add toll lanes to widen the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-270.)

So consider the poll results, along with Hogan’s claims, with a bountiful amount of salt. After all, it is a campaign, and all the more bodacious because Jealous has lacked the funds and the platform to respond effectively and in kind.

Simply put, Jealous has not made a strong case for change at a time when Maryland voters seem to see no need for it.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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