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Election Forecast: Part Science, Part Art

San Diego pollsters , just recovering from the wild 2004 mayoral election complete with a write-in curveball , are now prognosticating their way through what promises to be an equally entertaining exercise in democracy: a special election.

The July 26 contest to determine who will replace embattled Mayor Dick Murphy has pollsters’ computers revved up. Some work for a candidate, others for a news outlet, and one local company is showcasing its political campaign software with a survey of its own.

Not all of the major mayoral candidates have committed to internal polling. For one thing, it’s pricey , costing about $20,000 for what is called an initial “benchmark” survey.

Still, political polling remains as common during election season as campaign signs and TV spots.

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El Cajon-based Datamar, Inc., which issued its latest political poll June 9, originally served the accounting industry, but in the last few years has been refining its political campaign software, which compiles and processes precinct analysis, demographics and voter profiles.

The company, with a core group of four staffers, outsources a lot of its programming.

“We have very specialized needs,” said Raul Furlong, the company’s chief executive officer.

“We’re profitable,” he added, declining to quote revenues. “We have been growing at about 5 to 7 percent.”

Datamar isn’t representing any candidate or political action committee in San Diego’s mayoral race, said Richard Babcock, vice president and chief survey officer for the firm. “Our business has grown rapidly in the last two years,” said Babcock. “We are doing several surveys a month for private clients.”

Those clients have included the San Diego chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, which commissioned a series of polls, including one on the 2004 mayoral race. Datamar also worked as a consultant for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign and the Gray Davis recall.

Datamar’s polls can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000, depending on the number of questions and people polled, said Babcock.

The firm uses a combination of live and automated callers, which poses a challenge to California-based pollsters.

“You can’t have an automated phone system in California, but it is legal in other states,” he said.

So, Datamar employs callers in Utah, where the firm rents the phones, and in Texas, where it owns them.

The managers there find the callers, many of whom are students and retirees, and train them for about three hours, which includes how to use the special software. They’re paid “a little above minimum wage,” said Babcock, adding that to do the same job in California would add about $4 an hour per person.

“During election season, salaries go up, because we get good people,” he said. “It’s tough to find good people. They can make pretty good money. If we find people who have a knack for it, and stick with it, they can start moving up salarywise, up to $10.”

John Nienstedt, the president of San Diego-based Competitive Edge Research & Communication, Inc., is completing an election poll for Public Broadcasting’s KPBS, which is scheduled to be released June 13.

Training is key, Nienstedt said. The national firm, opened in 1987, either posts help-wanted ads in newspapers, or asks for referrals from existing personnel.

“We prefer folks with experience,” he said. “We’ll train them, a number of hours over a period of several days. It depends on their previous experience.”

In addition to the basics, they get specific training for each poll another half-hour or so. He declined to say how much they are paid.

As for the workers, the company initially used a lot of students and stay-at-home moms, he said.

“Now, we have a greater mix,” Nienstedt said. “It depends on where we were located at the time. In the first place, Sorrento Valley, we drew more from the surrounding area, and it wasn’t a hotbed of people. We had some UCSD students. Then, when we moved to Mission Valley, we added SDSU into the mix.”

Now, the company is based on Bankers Hill, where, he said, they get more of a mix and students from City College, among other schools.

Competitive Edge employs about 180, including a full-time management team of eight, interviewers who work fairly regularly, and others who come and go, depending on the workload, he said.

The company functions 52 weeks of the year, said Nienstedt.

“There’s an election going on every couple of weeks somewhere in the country,” he said, “and there are always public affairs issues, civic issues.”

Among the firm’s clients are Ikea and the National Association of Home Builders.

“We have business clients, public affairs clients, we run the gamut,” he said.

The company cleared $2 million in 2004, and has grown by about $250,000 a year, he said.

One veteran pollster in San Diego sitting out the mayor’s race this time around is the former Decision Research, now known as Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research. In May, the firm, with an office in Washington, D.C., merged with fellow Democratic pollster Lake Snell Perry Mermin and Associates, based in the nation’s capital. The merger, which adds Oakland to the operation, will make the new company one of the largest public policy and polling firms in the country.

“This is the first time in maybe 10 years we are not involved in the mayor’s race,” said Heidi von Szeliski, a partner in the San Diego operation. “It is extremely unusual for us not to be.”

Opinion polls don’t come cheap, she said. A single benchmark poll, with 400 completed surveys, can cost up to $20,000, while a typical campaign can spend 5 percent to 10 percent of its funds on research and focus groups.

“It could be a significant amount of money,” said von Szeliski. “It’s more of a challenge in races where there are smaller budgets.”

Unlike some pollsters, her firm doesn’t do media surveys, but works directly for a campaign, the last one having been for San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts in his failed bid for mayor last year.

When it comes to political fates and fortunes, time tends to be money, Datamar’s Furlong said.

“Campaigns waste a lot of money, because they don’t have the data available,” he said. “They say, ‘Let’s mail to all the Republicans,’ but they might not be the voters they want. Some precincts, in high-income areas, there may be one party that will be avoiding communicating with the other party, thinking they don’t agree with the philosophy. But they might find they have a lot in common on certain issues.

“There are a lot of assumptions done in politics,” he added. “The more experienced consultants can guess a lot better, based on their previous experience. But they waste a lot of money, because they can’t pinpoint at the precinct level who their most likely voters are. In any business, the more data you have, the better you’re able to target your consumer , in this case, the voters.”


Poll Vaulting

How valuable are political polls and surveys? Are they merely self-fulfilling prophecies, or an accurate barometer of public sentiment?

Nicole Capretz, press aide to City Councilwoman Donna Frye, said the campaign will not be doing any internal polling.

“We don’t have the resources,” said Capretz. “We’ll be spending our resources communicating with the voters.”

Frye, who is leading in several polls, said in general, polling is a good way to track name identification, trends, and changes in trends , upturns and downturns.

“They are also helpful in gauging public sentiment for a moment in time. A poll’s impact can vary widely, however, depending on how the poll was conducted, and they are not always reliable.”

The integrity of a poll, Frye added, is only as good as the integrity of the pollsters.

“Poll results that are achieved using leading questions or false statements about candidates , push polls , should be disclosed as such,” she said.

As for the impact of polls, she added, it can work a variety of ways.

“If the poll result shows that a particular candidate has little chance of winning, it may discourage voters from voting for that person,” she said. “Conversely, if a poll shows a very tight race, it may energize people to vote. In the end, the only ‘poll’ that really matters is the vote of the people on election day.”

Scott Maloni, mayoral candidate Jerry Sanders’ press aide, said that even a good showing in a poll can turn sour. While his candidate has done relatively well in the polls, Maloni cautioned that “these numbers may cause certain candidates lagging in the polls to go negative with a heavy dose of TV and radio spots, which means numbers could change.”

For many campaigns, he added, “polling plays an important role in helping refine and target messages.”

“However, the traditional ‘horse-race’ polls published in newspapers are often misleading, particularly in lower-turnout races in which there are major differences in name ID between the candidates,” said Maloni, who said Sanders, who is polling in second place, is not doing any internal surveys.

“New York Myke” Shelby, one of the five included in Datamar’s poll, said he has a businessman’s viewpoint, not a politician’s.

“I do customer surveys to find out what we’re doing right or wrong in my business, so I’m not going to sit here and criticize polls,” he said. “But I don’t understand the politics of it. I understand the business of San Diego, what’s wrong and how to fix it. But all this poll stuff if you want to take the pulse of the citizens, how their government is working, that would reflect reality. But if you’re talking about some candidates doing everything to sell themselves to the city, I don’t know what that means. Hopefully, July 26 will be the realistic poll.”

According to Shelby’s press adviser, John Gordon, no internal polling has been commissioned yet.

“We will be,” he said, declining to say how much the campaign would be spending on this.

Businessman Steve Francis has hired the Tarrance Group, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based pollster, according to Steve Danon, Francis’ press adviser.

The campaign, said Danon, is spending an initial $20,000 on the polling, considered in the industry the basic benchmark gauge of public opinion.

“That’s only a snapshot in time,” he said. “By the time the numbers are out, based on what’s been happening, they can change. So, we might decide to do a tracking poll, which keeps you up to date.”


Kill The Messenger

Predictably, the candidates’ responses to polls depend on how well they come off, said KGTV’s 10News’ executive producer, Lee Swanson.

On June 3, KGTV released its poll, conducted by New York-based SurveyUSA.

“Invariably, with local political polls, the campaigns always call and say, ‘E-mail that to me as soon as you can,’ ” he said. “Once they see it, three-fourths of them disagree, except the ones who come out on top, and think it’s good.”

Datamar’s Babcock gets the same feedback.

“Last year, we showed Murphy leading by a good margin against Roberts,” he said about the 2004 mayor’s race.

“He was sending out the polls to everybody. But closer to election day, his numbers kept dropping, and Ron’s were going back up. Then Roberts was putting it out, and Murphy was telling us it’s all a plant. It all depends on who is showing up or down if they like our poll. We made both of them happy, and upset both of them, so I guess we must be doing our job OK.”

Not that the candidates always agree, he said.

“People like to shoot the messenger instead of the message,” said Babcock.

How prophetic are these polls?

For the mayoral race in November, the 10News poll last year had Murphy leading (31 percent), Roberts second (30 percent), and Frye, who was running a write-in campaign, third (29 percent). While Murphy was indeed declared the winner, Frye actually drew the largest number of votes, but more than 5,000 of them were disqualified because of the now fabled bubbles that were not properly filled in.

In the poll conducted by Competitive Edge, for KPBS, Frye held the lead (36.9 percent), followed by Roberts (26.2 percent), and then Murphy (23.6 percent).

“Politicians will say that the only poll that matters is the one on election day,” said Swanson. “True enough. But these have proven to be a good barometer.”

While polling is considered an inexact science, it’s still a science, said Nienstedt. “It’s not putting your finger into the wind or reading tea leaves,” he said. “We take a scientific approach to measuring public opinions. You have to know which universe you are polling, and that takes experience. In July, we’re talking about a special election, and you have to have a lot of experience to figure out who will turn out and how many will turn out. It’s not an easy task.”

Inexperienced pollsters, he said, will either cut too narrow, or not narrow enough, skewing the results.

Another key to sound polling, he said, is to have properly trained live, not recorded, interviewers doing the surveys.

“You have to know how to get cooperation in the first place, or you will have a lot of people who will not take the time to do the survey,” said Nienstedt. “We train our people to handle all sorts of circumstances.”

Along with the science, he said, is a healthy dose of art.

“There is a little bit of art to drawing a sample,” he said, “experience mixed with knowing the lay of the political land. There is a science to drafting a questionnaire, but also an art. We don’t want bias responses.

“The real art comes in analyzing the results. Art is knowing by feel what statistical techniques to use, what to rely on, if this relationship matters, and this one doesn’t. You bring it all together. Good pollsters see through the numbers, and produce more than just numbers. We’ve been right on in 2000 and 2004, and I think we’ll be this time, but we are always going to have an error rate.

“We’ve have 18 years of experience,” he said. “We’re a San Diego firm, and I take what we do very personally. I’m looking at my hometown and trying to tell an accurate story of what’s going on.”

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