08/11/2010 03:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

High Quality Local Poll Reporting

Your intrepid reporter is doing field research in south-western Washington state and stumbled across a nice example of local reporters and newspapers doing serious reporting on polling.

The setting is Washington's Third congressional district, covering most of south-western Washington from Olympia in the north to Vancouver across the river from Portland OR. An open seat rated tossup by both The Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, Dems have held the seat easily since 1998 but with the retirement of incumbent Democrat Brian Baird the seat is clearly up for grabs. Cook's Partisan Voting Index for the district is a flat zero. Obama won the district 53-45 while Bush edged Kerry 50-48. 

Two Dems and three Reps are on the August 17th primary ballot. On the GOP side, two-term State Representative Jaime Herrera faces ex-Marine David Hedrick who cites his Tea Party origins, and ex-Bush administration official David Castillo, who claims backing from Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. Neither Hedrick nor Castillo have prior electoral experience. (The Democratic candidates are not the focus of the polling article, but include five time state Representative Denny Heck and citizen activist Cheryl Crist. Independent Norma Jean Stevens also appears on the primary ballot.) Under Washington election law, all candidates appear on a single ballot with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general, regardless of party.

In an August 10 front-page story above the fold of The Columbian, reporter Kathie Durbin, reports on new poll results cited by the Hedrick campaign which show him neck-and-neck with Herrera (and both trailing Democrat Heck.) But then the story gets to the punch line:

But the source of Hedrick's information, The Washington State Political Polls, was unknown in the state until last month and has zero credibility with polling professionals.

The story goes on to trace the vague origins of the "poll", with clear and useful quotes from Seattle pollster Stuart Elway of the Elway Poll and University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto. In the course of the lengthy 27 paragraph article, reporter Durbin manages to cover the role of random sampling and how internet polls of dubious origins fall far short of those standards. She also includes comments from the Hedrick campaign defending its use of the "poll". My favorite:  "'s "not my job" to vet the poll."

While the WA-03 race is an important tossup, it is not at the center of national reporting. But this article is a model of local reporting on polling, vetting claims by candidates and checking polling methods with qualified professionals. And putting the story in a prominent place in the paper.

As we enter the frenzy of the fall campaign with a bevy of new pollsters appearing, using IVR and internet methods of data collection (some well, some not so well), it is especially important that reporters check the polling methods and report to readers what is at stake between scientific polling and junk. It was a pleasure to find this job done so well.