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Rahm Runs Out Notebook #1: The Polls

"A poll bankrolled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's close friend, business adviser and largest political donor shows Emanuel in relatively decent shape to win a third-term if he chooses to pursue it," Fran Spielman reported for the Sun-Times on August 20th.

This was an odd - but ultimately unsurprising - report. Unsurprising because, as I've written frequently over the life of this site, Spielman is wholly untroubled by acting as a stenographer to power in the service of "scoops" - and in fact is sought out by City Hall to serve as such even as some of her colleagues praise her "access" to "insiders."

To wit:


Emanuel, I was once told by a person in a position to know, was "obsessed" with using Spielman to shape narratives.


Back to Spielman's story:

"Michael Sacks, CEO of Grosvenor Capital Management, asked New York-based Global Strategy Group to take a closer look at the crowded, 2019 race for mayor to do his own assessment of where things stand.

"With 'lots of polls flying around' portraying Emanuel as virtually unelectable, Sacks turned to a firm he knows and trusts to take another look."

This sounds a bit hinky. "Lots of polls" delivering results Sacks didn't like sparked him to "turn to a firm he knows and trusts," perhaps to deliver better numbers!


"The poll of 600 likely mayoral election voters was conducted July 22 to 29."

So it was nearly a month old before it was delivered to Spielman.


"Results for Emanuel were far from a slam dunk. But, they are encouraging, nevertheless, considering the conventional wisdom that he faces an uphill climb to win a third-term."

That's one interpretation. But is that what the data really said?

For example:

"In a Round One sampling that includes six candidates, Emanuel leads the field with 32 percent of the vote."

So Rahm didn't even come close to the 51 percent needed to avoid a runoff. I mean, 32 percent is pretty pathetic for a Chicago mayoral incumbent and global figure with a massive PR operation nearing the end of his second term.


"Emanuel's share of the vote rises to 48 percent, just shy of the 50 percent-plus-one needed to avoid a runoff, when voters receive 'simulated positive and negative messaging about all of the candidates' akin to television commercials."

So even after reinforcing positive messages about Rahm and negative messages about everyone else, Rahm, a globally known figure with a huge PR operation at the end of his second term, couldn't reach 50 percent of the hypothetical vote. A lot of political professionals would call that pretty damn discouraging.


The rest of the data released to Spielman - it's unclear if she was given entire poll and its entire methodology - is equally as nonsensical.

Such as:

"Emanuel is in even better shape when pollsters simulate negative advertising about him and his challengers. He mauls McCarthy with 60 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 25 percent. The mayor also records landslide victories over Lightfoot [by a 31 percentage point margin] and Vallas [with a 29 percentage point advantage.]"

So when voters heard only negative advertising about everyone, Rahm came out looking pretty good! Of course, he went into such an exercise with years of built-in PR and name recognition. I'd also like to see the negative arguments that were attached to each candidate - for example, did one say that Rahm tore the city apart closing 50 schools in a move that turned out to be of no benefit to students at all? In other words, what negative messages? Without knowing what they were, it was malpractice to report on them and just take the word of Sacks and his favorite, trusted pollster.


I will give credit to Sacks and his pollster for this: They're working awfully hard for their client!


"Sacks said he decided to commission his own poll because, 'I felt like a lot of the poll numbers being thrown around were lacking integrity.'"

Oh. So polls by other campaigns - and, presumably the media, if any such polls have been done - lacked integrity, but not Rahm's!


Here, though, is where the game was really given away:

"I believe the poll shows that Rahm is the clear favorite. He basically clobbers all candidates. I can't imagine that any of the myriad candidates see things differently," Sacks wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

First, the poll did not show Rahm as "the clear favorite." They showed a well-known candidate who in the most favorable light is 18 points shy avoiding a runoff - on the even of the Laquan McDonald trial.

Second, the notion that Sacks "can't imagine that any of the myriad candidates see things differently" was absurd on its face - and counter to the polling of some challengers that, fairly or not, showed just the opposite.

Third, "Sacks wrote in a text message." So Sacks wasn't interviewed for this piece? He wasn't asked the basic questions any competent journalist would ask? He had the time to commission the poll and relay it to Spielman - a month later - but not to discuss it?

(This is also on the paper's editors, whose strong suit has never been . . . editing.)

Another question: Was this poll released to any other media? If not, why? Or have we just answered that question? Or did other outlets take a pass?


Pollster Jeff Pollock did answer questions, though I can't say whether they were good ones.

In a telephone interview Monday, pollster Jeff Pollock said the "bottom line" for Emanuel is that he stands "a strong chance" to earn a third-chance from Chicago voters and "starts off in poll position to do so."

"Is it gonna be easy? No. The last one wasn't either. But, there are plenty of numbers here to suggest that he can be victorious," Pollock said.

That may sound good on first glance, but go back and re-read it. Pollock is really saying nothing - or nothing new that the poll gleans. Somehow Rahm stood a "strong chance" of winning re-election but it wasn't going to be easy. Those two things don't mesh; someone with a strong chance of winning doesn't face a tough race.

Starting off in a poll position to win? Hardly bragworthy. Rahm was the incumbent with a huge financial advantage and the support of the business community and political establishment in a town that loves incumbents. Pollock is actually damning the mayor with less-than-faint praise.

"The data shows that he certainly has multiple paths to success. It's really a question of what happens in the first round. Can he push his numbers up before then?"

A Rahm Emanuel who has to push his numbers up for the first round is not a Rahm Emanuel in a strong position. Getting to a run-off wasn't even a given?


To be fair, Spielman and the Sun-Times pushed out polls by the Garry McCarthy and Lori Lightfoot campaigns without proper vetting as well.

In "McCarthy Pollster: Rahm Unelectable, Will 'Embarrass' Himself In Re-Election Bid" last March, Spielman wrote:

The Democratic pollster to whom Rahm Emanuel once famously sent a dead fish on Thursday delivered the political version of a dead fish to the mayor's doorstep: a poll that, Alan Secrest claims, shows Emanuel is unelectable.

The poll of 800 registered and likely Chicago voters - with a 3.5 percent margin of error - was conducted Jan. 23-through-Feb. 1 for former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. The limited results Secrest shared suggest why McCarthy jumped into the race against the mayor who fired him.

In a "one-on-one trial heat pairing," Emanuel and McCarthy are in a "statistical tie," Secrest said, refusing to reveal the specific numbers.

Let me tell you something: Rahm was not unelectable despite the trouble he was in. That right there is a ridiculous thing to say.

But note also that McCarthy's pollster "shared" "limited results" and "refus[ed] to reveal the specific numbers."

That's when you tell the campaign, "Thanks, but no thanks."


In "Poll For Challenger Lightfoot Shows Rahm's 2019 Re-Election Bid In Big Trouble" last July, Spielman wrote:

"[J]ust 31 percent said they would vote to re-elect Emanuel."

Wait - Sacks' poll said Emanuel led with 32 percent of the vote - the same result! But in the Lightfoot report, Spielman agreed that was bad news for Rahm, while in the Sacks report she agreed that was good news for Rahm!


"Emanuel campaign spokesperson Caron Brookens summarily dismissed the Lightfoot poll.

"In politics, the only people who release months old stale polling are those who don't have a good story to tell today," Brookens wrote in an e-mail.

Sacks' poll for Emanuel, as I noted, was a month old when he released it to Spielman.

Also, Brookens didn't have time to take a phone call - or Spielman didn't have time to make a phone call?


Brookens: "Our CURRENT polling shows the Mayor beating all challengers by double digits."

The Sacks poll hadn't been done at that point, but it now begs the question of why he didn't trust the polls the campaign was already doing, as well as the obviousness of how disingenuous Brookens' claim was. Why not send that data over to Spielman if true? (Did Spielman even ask?)


For the millionth, exhausting time:

A reporter's job isn't to moderate between dueling bullshit. It's to weed bullshit out. You are allowed to take a pass on polling passed along to you by campaigns; better yet, write about how campaigns are trying to influence the campaign by passing off bullshit polls to the media. But then, to do your job you have to know what your job is.


For what it's worth, FiveThirtyEight gives Sacks' pollster, Global Strategy Group, a grade of C+ for its work.

The former firm of McCarthy's pollster, Secrest, also netted just a C+. Apparently Secrest is on his own now.

Lightfoot's pollster, GBA Strategies, earned a B.


Also for what it's worth, from Politico, though I would be just as reluctant to use without seeing the data:

"We have seen multiple polls both citywide and at the aldermanic level where the mayor was in a very difficult position politically," said Jerry Morrison, a political operative with Service Employees International Union. "In some of these wards where he was getting 55 or 60 [percent in 2015], he couldn't get out of the 30s. It was clear his political position had eroded."

Release those polls, Jerry!


So what was the true purpose of the Sacks poll?

Perhaps Sacks was using it to try to convince Rahm to stay in the race. Or perhaps releasing it when he did was an effort, knowing Rahm was going to bail, to pre-empt the narrative that Rahm quit because he couldn't win re-election.

After all, Rahm insisted to every media outlet he spoke with after he dropped out of the race that he could've won easily - by 10 points!

Not even his own pollster made that claim. But Rahm was also able to say that he leaves the political arena - for now - having never lost an election.

That may be a fact, but I don't know if it's the truth. You might say he lost this election - even that, as it was put to me the other day, he essentially resigned the office.

Rahm has not earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reasons. Neither have his pollsters.


See also: Put Political Polls Out To Pasture.


Comments welcome.


Posted on September 11, 2018

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