Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Part 3 of a 3-Part Analysis

Election 2002:

A New Era in Virginia Politics

Lies, Damn Lies and Polls

How a privately funded voter poll, which should have sent off alarm bells to the local media, was used to manipulate the political system and set in motion the Hampton Roads Tax debacle.


Those with a proven record of changing the status quo and moving Virginia forward have a right to be furious at a small clique of businessmen in the Hampton Roads Partnership, along with Sen. Marty Williams (R-Newport News), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Together, they engaged in a cynical effort to manipulate the political system through the use of a "cooked" public opinion poll. Give them their due: They held Tidewater politics hostage for the past year.

Yet this fascinating, true story doesn't seem to interest Hampton Roads journalists.

This is very curious. For the past many months, the editorial pages of the Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot engaged in the most sustained and unprecedented "blame the customer" politics in my political experience. They derided the IQ and the local economic patriotism of eastern Virginia residents, accusing them of selfishly refusing to shoulder their fair share of responsibility for dealing with the region's transportation needs.

I ask you: In what other legal endeavor could you berate your customers as ignorant, selfish, uninformed and cheap, but not worry about going out of business?

The first amendment guarantees everyone the right to express, ad nauseum if necessary, their political opinion. But as I wrote here on Aug. 22:


A constant, tax, tax, tax mantra, where every time you pick up the newspaper one reads the same argument stated another way, is counterproductive. Repetition doesn't make something more right, or more sensible, or make it more likely to happen. Truth is, assuming the editorial writers want to be taken seriously, the opposite result is often put in political motion.

Sadly -- and this is what led to the research contained in this article -- neither the Daily Press nor the Virginian-Pilot apparently feels any journalistic obligation to review their crucial role in this cynical manipulation. Their "news" stories on Nov. 29, 2001 were critical to what transpired.

When you compare the content of these stories -- based purely on the self-serving claims of privately funded interests -- with what has now been proven in the public arena, one does not have to be Edward R. Murrow on his legendary show "See It Now" to realize that the journalism tradition expects, and the people deserve, a public accounting.

I hope what follows will start the process.

It all started, ironically enough, on Nov. 14, the 141st birthday of Claude Monet. While local newspapers were celebrating the work of the great French impressionist, certain members of the Hampton Roads Partnership, a public-private alliance between businessmen and politicians, were creating some impressions themselves -- false impressions. They hired the respected Republican polling firm of McLaughlin and Associates to do a "poll" of Hampton Roads voters on the transportation issue. According to the Pilot, the interviewing took place on Nov. 14th, 2001.

The Hampton Roads Partnership "poll" was unlike any other, before or since, on the transportation issue in the Hampton Roads area. Indeed, less than a month before, the Virginian Pilot had published a poll taken for it by another polling firm that showed an entirely different picture on a tax referendum in Northern Virginia, which at the time was considered far more supportive of such measures than Tidewater [and indeed, NOVA's tax referendum ran much stronger than the doomed Tidewater Tax earlier this month, although both lost].

The Hampton Roads Partnership poll could not have appeared at a more politically convenient time. Three weeks previously, on Oct. 20, the Warner campaign had made news in the Daily Press by saying the candidate would sign a transportation tax referendum for Hampton Roads, not just Northern Virginia, the major referendum battleground. But candidate Warner had made it clear he would not force a referendum on any region. Indeed, the Daily Press later had a story in January tweaking Gov. Warner for his hands-off position. Then on Nov. 6, Virginians had elected Mark Warner as governor. Many in the press attributed this victory to his support for regional transportation tax referendums in those areas that wanted them.

Then, presto, a month before the General Assembly convened and took up the issue, the Hampton Roads Partnership gave the local news media its "poll results" demonstrating support for higher taxes. In turn, the media put them in newspaper with much fanfare, giving the "results" legitimacy and massive publicity without any real effort to check the accuracy, despite the private interest of the source, in this case the Partnership, even though, as indicated above, their own polling date from the month before made these "results" suspect.

The stories appeared on Nov. 29th, with the headline in the Daily Press beginning, "Poll: Traffic is Area Top Woe ...." According to the Pilot, the poll found that residents in Hampton Roads were three times more likely to pick "transportation" as the "leading problem facing the region" over education. The opening line in the front-page Virginian-Pilot story declared that "[N]early 70 percent of Hampton Roads residents polled in a new survey back the idea of a regional tax to pay for key local road and transit projects."

Never has a turkey of a "poll" contributed more to a Happy Thanksgiving than during November of 2001. This image of overwhelming public concern with transportation fit perfectly with the impression that Warner's advocacy of regional referendums won him the election.

Suddenly, Hampton Roads residents were THREE TIMES more likely to list transportation as their leading issue as opposed to education. This was key data point that showed the "poll" to be grievously flawed. How so? Other polls taken during the 2001 election cycle, to the knowledge of this author, never showed anything of this nature. Education was the top concern of Hampton Roads voters, not transportation. So, this polling "internal" number, as it is called in the business, was very telling.

I do not mean to suggest the numbers reported were in any way fabricated. But the questionnaire and methodology used to develop and then take the "poll" skewed the outcome in favor of the people paying for it.

Pollsters can bias the results, consciously or unconsciously, by the way they construct the questions and in what order they ask them. For example, if they construct a "poll" in a way that asks leading questions about a certain subject -- transportation -- to the exclusion of others, it can greatly skew the respondents' responses on subsequent questions such as, what is the top issue for consideration and would you pay higher taxes to solve it.

It is always a problem in polling to avoid biasing the responses by providing information and constructing questions in the "run-up" to the key questions you are actually testing.

Given the "results" and what was known about the political landscape at the time -- and what is known now -- surely the observations in this article should raise questions as why the Pilot and Daily Press failed their duty.

But such fine points of polling methodology didn't matter early in the year. Sen. Williams and the Hampton Roads Partnership had what they wanted: a gun to the head of the local political process.

As Senate Transportation Committee chairman, Williams also had great sway over the fate of the Northern Virginia transportation referendum proposal. It wasn't long before the news stories in Tidewater were reporting that Del. John A. Rollison, R-Woodbridge, who was worried about the passage of the NOVA transportation referendum he'd sponsored, was saying publicly how this new support for a Tidewater referendum proposal helped his cause.

By Feb. 27, the Hampton Roads Referendum had already passed both the House and the Senate, without needing any prodding from the Governor, as reported in the media. At which point, the politics had passed the fail-safe point.

Once Williams and the Hampton Road Partnership got the referendum on the ballot, they set in motion an inevitable falling of the dominoes.

Logic suggests they figured they were no worse off by pushing the referendum even if it lost big; they would be in no worse position, given their view of the desperation of the transportation situation without higher taxes. But of course, they had a poll saying they could win big.

There is an important line between forceful advocacy and manipulative irresponsibility. Taking the "results" of such a poll, and then using it to give a false impression on such an emotional political issue, crosses that line in my judgment. The greatest danger to any democratic process is a rampant, reinforcing cynicism among the public.

Cynicism, far more than bad judgment, is the true enemy of progress, for it makes people believe all the politicians are the same. What happened in Tidewater is now clear. Some very powerful local forces used their position to take advantage of the system.
The Tidewater news media did not bother to do their due diligence, but rather allowed themselves to be used to promote this false impression. Given the overwhelming support they gave the tax referendum, journalistic tradition says they now owe the public an accounting and an explanation.

Based on these facts, many of the contributors who gave those several million to the YES campaign might rightly believe they were fleeced out of their money.

I teach my son the end does not justify the means. This is an important lesson in life. We are all never too old to learn it.


-- November 20, 2002

Bring Home the Bacon

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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.