06/12/2009 03:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rothenberg: On Truth and Poll Spin

Stuart Rothenberg's take on the lessons from the Virginia primary includes a slap at that odd last minute poll spin from the McAuliffe campaign (via Smith, link added):

[T]oo many press spokesmen caught up in their own spinning and campaigns often get too cute by half in trying to use poll numbers - that they often know are misleading - to energize supporters.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post quoted McAuliffe senior adviser Mo Elleithee on Election Day as saying, "In the last 48 hours, the lead that Senator Deeds had taken in the last week started to collapse," and an Elleithee Election Day get-out-the-vote e-mail cited the last night of a three-day tracking survey that showed Deeds and McAuliffe tied at 33 percent.

The e-mail was filled with disclaimers that the one-night results are "not definitive" and that the campaign never makes decisions "on one night's worth of interviews because the sample is too small." Nevertheless, the campaign released those numbers and constructed an argument based on them. The full three-night poll was never released, nor did Elleithee note that internal campaign polling over the previous week showed Deeds was pulling away and would win handily.

One McAuliffe campaign insider I spoke with after the results were in acknowledged that in the campaign's final days "we knew things looked really bad, but things looked volatile." That explanation is not convincing. In fact, those running the McAuliffe campaign knew very well what was happening.

The only conclusion possible is that the campaign was not telling the truth and that it was selectively using numbers that it knew should never be used to make a point that it knew was very dubious, at best.

A suggestion for journalists about this sort of last minute  spin: Know the code. When a campaign trots out internal polling numbers that show a totally different trend from the public surveys, ask yourself, where is the pollster? If the people that produced the numbers are willing to bet their company's reputation on a counter-intuitive finding, take it seriously. On the other hand, if the pollster does not participate in the conference call or if their name appears nowhere on the memo, take it with a gigantic grain of salt.  Better yet, take a walk.

To be clear: I have no knowledge, firsthand or otherwise, about what McAuliffe pollsters Pete Burnitz and Joel Benenson had to say about these numbers. For all I know they were in London on Tuesday pitching their newest client. Still, the absence of their names from that McAuliffe release is hard to ignore.