THE BLOG
03/09/2010 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conflicts at UW-Madison

On Sunday, the Associated Press published a lengthy report on a controversy brewing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that involves some friends of Pollster.com.

What AP reporter Ryan Foley describes as a "fiasco" involves a year-old agreement between the University and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), a conservative think-tank, to conduct statewide polls this year in partnership with the University. Under the agreement, WPRI would help fund statewide polling, including a $13,000 contract with UW political scientist Ken Goldstein. According to the AP report, however, the University never had a formal contract with WPRI. And then there are these details uncovered by a liberal activist:

Scot Ross, a liberal muckraker who runs the group One Wisconsin Now, was critical of the deal from the beginning. He said his "worst fears were confirmed" after he obtained e-mails under the open records law showing WPRI President George Lightbourn lobbied Goldstein to publicize results from one question in a way favorable to its agenda.

The question asked whether government funding should be used for school vouchers, which WPRI supports. A majority of residents statewide were opposed, but those surveyed from Milwaukee County were in favor.

Lightbourn wrote Goldstein he was concerned critics would portray the data as showing a lack of support for vouchers and asked for the Milwaukee County results to be emphasized. The university's press release read: "School choice remains popular in Milwaukee."

The AP story -- which is well worth reading in full -- includes complete details plus a reaction from Goldstein who says he is "stunned, flabbergasted, amazed -- every single adjective you can come up with" as the criticism he has received.

Our own interests in this story are as follows: Pollster.com co-creator and contributor Charles Franklin is a member of the UW-Madison political science department and a friend and colleague of Goldstein but, he tells me, was not personally involved in the WPRI polling. Also, well before the WPRI polling project, my assistant Emily Swanson worked for Goldstein as an undergraduate at UW-Madison.

If nothing else, this episode demonstrates the increasing difficulty consumers of polling data have in identifying potential conflicts in the sponsorship and funding of public polling. Simply identifying polls sponsored by a political campaign or political action committee or conducted by a campaign pollster -- something we try to do on Pollster.com -- is obviously not enough. In this case, a University of Wisconsin news release billed WPRI as a "non-partisan, non-profit think tank [that] has been conducting independent, annual polls on politics and issues for more than 20 years." Yet the Institute acknowledged to AP what their report characterized as a "free-market, limited government slant and receives funding from the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee group that supports numerous conservative causes."