I was initially skeptical of a recently released poll in the special election for Georgia’s 6th District, not because it utilized Interactive Voice Response, or IVR, technology or because it was conducted by a GOP-friendly firm or because a Democratic candidate was leading in a Republican-leaning district. But it only gave respondents the option to choose from less than half of the candidates, proving the limits of automated polling, or so I thought.
The March 15-16 automated survey conducted by Clout Research for zpolitics showed Democrat Jon Ossoff leading with 41 percent followed by two Republicans: former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and wealthy businessman Bob Gray, who had 16 percent each. Former state Sen. Judson Hill and three other Republicans combined for nearly 17 percent while former Democratic state Sen. Ron Slotin received 3 percent.
The problem is that the survey of 625 respondents included just eight of the 18 candidates running to replace former GOP Rep. Tom Price, who left the House to become President Donald Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services. All candidates run together in the April primary, and the top two advance to a June 20 runoff if no candidate receives a majority in the initial balloting.
There are plenty of pitfalls when it comes to polling including cost, low response rates, etc., but presenting respondents with an accurate reflection of the ballot isn’t supposed to be one of them.
“We feel strongly that replicating the ballot, in form and function is critical to getting an accurate read on the outcome,” said Republican pollster Adam Probolsky of Probolsky Research. “That includes the ballot order (or rotational scheme if there is one), any other information such as party (and how that is presented), notation of incumbency or other information.”
“It takes effort to dial in these details for each client, but without that next-level of inquiry about a ballot for a specific race, the data can be skewed minimally or worse,” Probolsky added.
In the not-too-distant past, IVR pollsters had to be creative with how to handle elections with more than 10 candidates, since respondents were limited to pressing one of the digits on their phone.
“When the Republican primary for president had 17 at least somewhat serious candidates, we just set it up as two questions,” explained Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm which helped mainstream IVR polling. “We listed off all the candidates, then let people press 1 to 8 for the first 8, or press 9 if they wanted one of the other candidates, and if they pressed 9 then we read them the options for the rest of the candidates. Doing it that way worked out decently well but it was still more cumbersome than if we could have squeezed it into one question.”
“If it’s easy to narrow it down to 9 or less serious candidates, we do take that approach,” Jensen continued. “When that comes up, it’s usually on a poll that we’re doing for a private client, and they generally tend to have a pretty good sense of who the serious candidates are and who’s going to end up with 1 percent or so.”
And that’s what happened in this case in Georgia.
Technology was not a limitation in the 6th District poll, according to Clout Research partner Fritz Wenzel. The client, zpolitics, chose which candidates should be included, something Wenzel called a “wise choice.”
But that decision could still have an effect on the results. Even though the 10 candidates omitted from the poll aren’t likely to win, each percentage point they garner makes it more difficult for another candidate to reach a majority in the initial balloting. Even if the three omitted Democrats receive 1 percent each, that would likely put Ossoff below 40 percent and further out of reach of a majority.
Through diving into this survey, I was surprised to learn that automated polling can now accommodate large candidate fields.
“[IVR] technology is getting so good these days, there are very few limitations,” said Wenzel.
The firm can increase the amount of time given to register a response to allow for more digits to be entered, when previously the program would only accept the first digit, or it can allow for respondents to speak the name of their candidate of choice and the program will translate that response into a numeric value to be tabulated on the back end.
Ossoff recently told The Associated Press that “the goal is to win outright” in April. While that scenario still seems unlikely in a district with a Democratic performance close to 38 percent, Ossoff has a path to shock the world by continuing to consolidate the Democratic base and get 10 percent of GOP voters, as he does in the Clout poll according to Wenzel.
The Pentagon may not really need the full $30 billion President Donald Trump requested last week for the current fiscal year.
That’s because Congress is already poised to provide a significant portion of the $30 billion in the fiscal 2017 Defense spending bill that the House passed on March 8. So that portion of the supplemental is redundant, congressional and Pentagon officials confirmed to CQ Roll Call.
The Pentagon does not have a tally of how much of its request duplicates what’s already in the final bill, but a CQ analysis shows it is in excess of $3 billion.
What’s more, lawmakers have already considered — and rejected — billions of dollars worth of other programs in the supplemental request, so those sections of the supplemental may not be funded either, but for the opposite reason. And paying for additional weapons is likely to require a change to the budget caps in law, diminishing the odds for those programs even further.
What is clear: If Congress needs to give the Pentagon any additional money beyond the $577.9 billion in the fiscal 2017 bill, it does not need to deliver a total of $30 billion extra.
“There are a number of instances of overlap on programs, which suggests to us that many of DoD’s top concerns are already addressed and additional systems may not be added even if a deal is reached to fund the supplemental,” Roman Schweizer, an analyst with Cowen Washington Research Group, told CQ Roll Call. Schweizer had highlighted the overlap in a policy note to investors last week.
Defense officials say they compiled the supplemental request before the final Defense bill was out, even though the legislation was made public two weeks before the supplemental request was released March 16.
“We will work with the congressional staff to deconflict our additional request from those items funded in the House-passed appropriations conference bill,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger, a Pentagon spokesman. A Senate GOP aide said those talks have already begun.
To be sure, Congress may not clear that Pentagon spending bill at all. In fact, the rancor triggered in Congress by Trump’s proposals to boost defense spending by scores of billions of dollars in fiscal 2017 and 2018 at the expense of nondefense programs may make it less likely that the Defense bill — or any new appropriations measure — becomes law.
But the Defense bill represents the will of Congress as expressed to date. In that legislation, House and Senate appropriators already agreed earlier this month to provide several billion dollars worth of ships and planes that were not in last year’s fiscal 2017 budget request but that the Pentagon said in last week’s supplemental request that it still needs.
Just as importantly, those same appropriators, in their final Pentagon spending bill, already rejected Pentagon pleas for billions of dollars in other unrequested programs that are nonetheless still listed in the March 16 submission.
The $30 billion supplemental is culled largely from wish lists the services have shared with Congress, so it was not so much a new request as a reiteration, in most cases, of longstanding requests in the form of “unfunded priorities” lists. CQ disclosed last month updated versions of those lists, the original versions of which came to Congress last year.
The clearest and most costly example of the after-the-fact nature of the new supplemental request is the Navy’s Super Hornet fighter jet program.
The previous administration had asked for money to procure two of the jets in fiscal 2017.
The pending Defense money bill would bankroll 12 more Super Hornets, for a total of 14 in fiscal 2017.
By comparison, the new supplemental request says the Navy needs 24 more Super Hornets. That means the Navy now wants 26 total Super Hornets (the two requested plus, the Navy hopes, 24 more).
But 14 of those 26 jets have already been okayed in the Defense spending bill. What that means is the Navy is really asking for 12 more, not 24 more, on top of what the pending bill provides.
If the Navy only needs 12 more, not 24 more, the service actually needs $1.1 billion — or half the $2.2 billion they asked for in the new request.
That math is repeated across the defense budget as the process unwinds.
And getting 26 total Super Hornets seems unlikely, given that Congress has already adjudicated the matter and rejected it.
Making things harder for the Super Hornet and other programs: the budget caps would need to be lifted to permit the funding.
Other weapons sought by the Pentagon in its new supplemental request — even though House and Senate appropriators have already said yes to those very weapons — include:
Not only does the Pentagon not need money for those weapons in the supplemental that has already been approved for funding, it also is unlikely to get the weapons it seeks in the supplemental that appropriators have already turned down.
For example, the Navy is seeking six more P-8 surveillance planes for $920 million. Congress may agree to provide those. But if they do, it will be after having rejected the request previously — and they’ll have to raise the caps to pay for it.
It’s not clear when the Senate will act on the Defense money bill, but some kind of overall money measure must be enacted by April 28, when the current stopgap spending bill (PL 114-254) expires. If not, most of the government will shut down.
Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.