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Coakley's Leaked Poll Numbers

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One of the odd aspects of last week of the Massachusetts Senate campaign is the way Coakley "internal" polling numbers have leaked on a near daily basis, through blogger Steve Kornacki and others. Wednesday night, according to Kornacki, the Coakley campaign's own polling showed her "barely ahead, 46 to 44 percent." Thursday night's results showed her trailing, 47 to 44 percent, and conservative columnist Byron York added a quote from an unnamed but "well-connected Democratic strategist" who "heard" that "in the last two days the bottom has fallen out of her poll numbers." Then on Friday night, again according to Kornacki, Brown was ahead by just two points on Coakley's poll (47% to 45%), and a three-day average of the results from Wednesday through Friday night gave Brown the same two-point lead (47% to 45%).

These leaks produced some snickering: Via Twitter, PPP's Tom Jensen pronounced the leaks the "sign of a highly undisciplined campaign." Jay Cost asked "how lame is the Coakley campaign" to leak their internal tracking polls "EVERY DAY?" And a very smart reader emailed this morning with the observation that leaks mark Coakley's campaign "more undisciplined than a 4 year old at K-mart on a sugar high."

Let me be clear: The conclusion that Coakley's campaign -- her staff or the consultants she retains -- is responsible for these leaks is probably unfair and a bit naive. They were likely not the source.

Now, alas, I do not have any inside information and have not been the recipient of any such leaks (really, old consultant comrades, where is the love?). But I can say from my own experience as a Democratic campaign pollster that it's fairly standard practice for a Senate campaign like Coakley's to share their daily tracking results with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the White House political office and EMILY's List. It's really unimaginable that Coakely, or any other "disciplined" campaign in their position, would not. Also, either directly or through these organizations, the same are almost certainly going to the labor groups and other interests conducting their own campaigns on Coakley's behalf. Each of those organizations has its own pollsters, media and direct mail consultants. So the leaks could have come from damn near any "well connected strategist" in Washington.

The incentive to leak would be especially high for those who have parachuted in to help in the final week, those with great incentive lay the groundwork to take credit should Coakley "come from behind" to win. Consider that these incentives are even greater for the White House. Obama really had no choice but to come to Massachusetts to Coakley's aid (as he is doing today). A Coakley loss will be catastrophic for Obama's legislative agenda, and the White House will take some of the blame either way. So a mid-week decision to come to her assistance creates huge incentive to leak these numbers. Again, if she loses, well, the bottom had already "fallen out." If she wins, they claim credit for turning things around.

Now all of this probably speaks to a breakdown in team play or the sort of ugly finger pointing that always seems to accompany defeat. For those surprised by the wide dissemination of "internal" Coakley polling data, consider that in the fall of 2008, the Obama campaign shared polling numbers and a whole lot more on a daily consultant conference calls whose participants (I'm told) close to a hundred. Nothing of significance leaked from those calls before Election Day. One way or another, Martha Coakely and her campaign are worthy of much criticism, but piling on over these leaks is unfair.

By the way, it's more than a little crazy to be paying much attention to the random zigs and zags apparent in the relatively small one-night samples used in internal campaign polling. I certainly hope that the pollsters of record are not making decisions or recommendations on the basis of anything but the three-night rolling averages.