Kinder, Gentler ’80s? Kerry Up by Seven? Don’t Believe the Hype

Posted June 14, 2004 at 6:40pm

Between the D-Day celebrations, the G-8 summit, and the death of Ronald Reagan last week, it’s not surprising that a couple of important political points got lost in all the media hype. In both cases, the political buzz was just plain wrong, and someone ought to say so.

[IMGCAP(1)]Bad Buzz No. 1: During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, partisan politics were so much kinder and gentler. Listening to the talking heads yearn for the “good old days” when Republicans and Democrats magically transformed into best friends after 6 p.m. made me wonder what universe they were from.

Take it from someone who cut his political teeth in the early 1980s working as a research analyst for the National Republican Congressional Committee: Politics in the 1980s were as tough and cutthroat as politics have ever been. The political agenda behind this sentimental journey is fairly obvious.

The president’s opponents are trying to peddle the notion that the reason politics in Washington have deteriorated to what is admittedly a sorry state can be summed up in the words George W. Bush. You’d have thought that the 1980s and 1990s were something to akin to one long ice cream social, with occasional policy disagreements between flavors.

The truth is that the partisan anger that divides Washington today can be traced back to an Indiana Congressional race between Democrat Frank McCloskey and Republican Rick McIntyre.

McCloskey won the initial count by 72 votes, but a Democratic county was found to have double-counted votes; in an official Indiana state recount, McIntyre beat McCloskey by 34 votes. The state of Indiana then certified McIntyre the winner but the Democratic-controlled House refused to seat him. Instead, they set up a special investigating committee, with two Democrats and one Republican, headed by the well-known nonpartisan Leon Panetta.

The committee went to work recounting ballots, and the moment McCloskey slipped ahead of McIntyre, the Democrats stopped counting and voted to recommend seating McCloskey. Ballots still remained to be recounted, but Democrats used a technicality to stop mid-count. Instead, the committee voted party-line, 2-1, to recommend seating McCloskey. Later, an unofficial recount showed McIntyre had indeed won the race.

When the Democratic-controlled House voted to seat McCloskey, Republicans walked out of the House chamber in protest. The arrogance of power demonstrated by the Democrats in that Congressional election left a bitter taste with most Republicans.

Then-Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn), a leading moderate, called it “a black day in the history of the House.” “It’s going to be very hard for me to work personally with people who just told me how honorable they were while they rolled me and the people of Indiana,” he said.

Two years later, that same arrogance of power destroyed the highly respected Judge Robert Bork in his Supreme Court bid. The vicious and overwhelmingly partisan attacks from Democrats stunned Republicans.

It was now clear that Democrats were going change the way the judicial-nominating process worked, in order to block any nominee who was conservative. Senate Democrats today are carrying the same mantle first-raised in 1987 against Bork.

So, next time you see a talking head longing wistfully for the good old days of the ’80s, remember it was the Democrats’ actions against McIntyre and Bork — not George Bush — that planted the partisan seeds that have borne such bitter fruit in Washington.

Bad Buzz No. 2: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has taken big lead according to an L.A. Times poll.

Last week, a new Los Angeles Times poll that showed Kerry beating Bush by 7 points created a small but important controversy over whether the poll’s sample accurately reflects the population as whole. This is a question that lies at the heart of every poll’s validity.

Not counting independents, the Times’ results were calculated on a sample made up of 38 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans — a huge and unheard-of margin.

Over the years, VNS exit polls have painted quite a different picture when it comes to party identification: In the past three presidential elections, the margin for Democrats in party identification ranged from 3 percent to 4 percent, well below the Times’ 13 percent.

Past exit polls have also demonstrated remarkable stability in party identification over the three elections. Democratic identification varied only 1 percentage point (ranging between 38 and 39). Independents only changed by 1 point (between 26 and 27), while Republicans didn’t change at all (with 35 percent across all three elections).

The core problem with the survey is the Times’ Republican sample of 25 percent — a full 10 percentage points lower than it should be.

In a statement defending the poll, the Times said it did not weight for party ID. “Party ID is a moving variable that changes from one election to another, and weighting by party registration makes no sense nationally because many states don’t have their voters’ register by party.” But the data from VNS contradicts this assumption.

The L.A. Times also pointed to a recent CBS poll that showed Kerry leading by 8 points. However, this is a flawed comparison, as the two polls conflict over the most critical segment of the voting population — the big middle. CBS had Kerry winning among Independents by 16 percent, while the L.A. Times had Bush winning by 3 percent. Yet there is virtually no difference in the ballot test. That’s impossible.

The number that really jumped out to most analysts was the poll’s finding that the Democrats currently maintain a generic-ballot lead of 19 points. I’ve been doing Congressional polling for nearly 25 years, and I’ve never seen a generic lead anywhere close to this.

Yet despite these staggering figures, there was no story in the Times saying the Democrats were clearly going to win the House or take back the Senate. If their generic were true, that’s the kind of sea change we would see and that’s new. But no other polling operation even comes close to that number.

To the Times’ credit, they did release their party-identification numbers, which gave us the ability to understand the survey’s bias. Most national media polls should release these numbers, but haven’t. So forget the buzz, and do the math next time. When you see a poll, look at the party id and ideology percentages, compare them to the VNS data, and then decided whether to buy the buzz.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.