"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
Did the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll Destroy Tim Penny's Campaign?
It certainly didn't help, and some observers question its timing and methodology
Election night, the Mall of America: Tim Penny, the Independence Party's gubernatorial candidate, was pulling triple duty - glad-handing supporters, warbling Beatles songs and gabbing with news crews. It wasn't a good night; the bank of televisions nearby showed Penny was losing his bid, badly. The candidate remained calm as a camp counselor all night.
But he did let his guard down, once. Pulled aside by a reporter who asked him if he thought the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, published a handful of days before the election, influenced the result, Penny clasped the writer's arm, shaking it vigorously. "It had a big effect," he hissed. "Our support wouldn't have just collapsed."
Indeed, according to that poll, Penny's momentum had apparently crashed to a halt. On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the Star Tribune ran the results of a one-day Minnesota Poll conducted Oct. 28, just three days after Paul Wellstone's death. Though mostly aimed at gauging the U.S. Senate race, the poll also queried the governor's race - and it showed Penny's base disintegrating.
Just two weeks earlier, the same poll declared the race a statistical tie. And even a day later, a little-noted St. Cloud State University (SCSU) poll conducted Oct. 14-27, came out to show Penny still locked in a dead heat with Democrat Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty. But by then, Penny's main rivals were already treating the race as a two-man affair; subsequent news coverage reflected that.
Penny and some of his supporters link the poll to his snuffed-out campaign. They complain that it was taken too soon after Wellstone died and question the validity of a quickie poll taken in mid-crisis. They also complain that the poll was badly skewed; 51 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, a jump of 11 percent from the sample used only two weeks before, a clue that Wellstone sympathy might be tinting the results. The newspaper itself cautioned readers that the poll was only "a brief snapshot ... at a time when the state's political world was reeling."
Such disclaimers notwithstanding, Penny remained unappeased two months later. "I'm not trying to assert that we would win, absent Wellstone's death and absent that poll," he says. "I'm just saying we would have remained competitive, with a chance of winning."
The Poll Position
Rob Daves is director of the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll, regarded by many journalists as among the best regional polling operations in the country. Daves remains confident of his Oct. 28 results.
Using statistical weighting aimed at weeding out unlikely voters, Daves' Oct. 28 poll queried 639 respondents - 40 percent fewer than the pool used in the Oct. 11-16 Minnesota Poll. The Oct. 28 poll had a 72 percent "cooperation rate," meaning pollsters interviewed nearly three-quarters of the people they tried to reach. (A high cooperation rate is considered crucial to a poll's validity, and some consider 60 percent sufficient. The SCSU participation rate was 65 percent.)
It all added up to reliable numbers, Daves insists. "We have a great deal of confidence in our sample," he says. "It looked good in all the internal measurements we use."
The poll's primary intent was to measure the impact of Walter Mondale on the U.S. Senate race; the gubernatorial polling was almost an afterthought. Perhaps tellingly, the poll was wildly off-target regarding that Senate race, showing Mondale leading Norm Coleman by 47-39 percent. Coleman, of course, won the election - in the wake of the infamous Wellstone memorial held Oct. 29. The poll was conducted before the memorial and published the day after it.
There were serious discussions at the Star Tribune about conducting the poll, Daves says. "A number of us talked about the issues with the polling," he says. "We felt that there was a lot going on in the political arena at the time, and we knew at that point that Walter Mondale would very likely be the [DFL] candidate. There was a very strong feeling among our editors to find out what that might mean for the Senate race."
At the St. Paul Pioneer Press, there were similar discussions. But there, editors and Mason-Dixon Research and Polling consultants agreed to suspend polling until Oct. 30, "to wait until the dust settled" after Wellstone's death, Mason-Dixon principal Larry Harris says.
"It was a very difficult time to poll," says Holly Heyser, political editor at the Pioneer Press. "Something huge was going on every day that could have affected the way people view things."
Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, says it would have been better had the Star Tribune also suspended polling.
A separate but crucial question, says Schier, is how accurate was the snapshot captured in that one-day glimpse into public opinion, considering that it was taken at a time of intense grief. He wonders if the gubernatorial numbers, like the Senate numbers, were simply wrong, reflecting an inaccurate picture of the electorate's real feelings. And if so, could those inaccurate numbers have colored the election?
Penny doesn't argue that the Minnesota poll robbed him of the governorship, but that it might have influenced voters in tandem with the Wellstone memorial flap. His logic holds that crucial undecided voters, many of them Independents, were angered by the partisan nature of the memorial service. The next morning, they picked up their paper to discover Penny was trailing badly. Perceiving he could no longer win, they started considering other candidates. As opponents and subsequent news coverage hammered away at the theme that Penny was a loser, that perception spread, finally morphing into reality.
Mason-Dixon pollster Harris says Penny's scenario could be correct. "Intuition and experience tells us that perception many times drives reality," he says. Not so, says University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. He argues that Democrats stuck with Penny to the end, while Republicans and Independents abandoned him. If the poll had undue influence, it should have shown up across the board. "I just don't see any evidence for the Penny claim," Jacobs says. "I appreciate and I feel the frustration on his part, but I really feel the poll had no impact."
In fact, there were some clues that Penny may have started his slide prior to the last week of October. DFLer Moe says his pollsters spotted a Penny "free fall" beginning in late September. Editor Heyser doubts that but says she took it fairly seriously when GOP pollsters whispered around Oct. 22 that Penny's support was slipping after Pawlenty ran his controversial anti-terrorism TV ad. Penny himself admits that the ad might have damaged his chances.
And therein lies the real problem in determining what happened to Tim Penny. Heyser, who is writing a book chapter on the election, says it is impossible to definitively explain Penny's collapse, or whether the Oct. 28 Minnesota Poll, or other factors, helped seal his fate. If public opinion polling is a strobe light that occasionally illuminates the public mind, she says, it blinked off at a most inopportune time.
"It's not unreasonable to think [the poll] could have an impact, I just can't even begin to fathom how much of an impact it could have. The problem is you just can't tell," she says. "We might all have missed the moment."
Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law and Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly