Public Policy Polling or Controlling?
Public Policy Polling is avowedly pro-Democratic; it also prizes its reputation for reliability. Can it continue to juggle these two balls?


Jim Geraghty

For political junkies, the biggest names in polling, like Gallup and Mason-Dixon, never seem to offer new results frequently enough. But political reporters, like nature, abhor a vacuum, and so newer polling organizations have stepped in to fill the void, becoming widely cited and shaping the conventional wisdom about this year’s competitive races.

Among these newer organizations are Rasmussen Reports, the prolific firm headed by Scott Rasmussen, and Research 2000, which is currently embroiled in a messy, high-profile legal fight with its best-known client, the liberal website Daily Kos. Then there’s the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, founded in 2001 by businessman Dean Debnam.

In many ways, PPP has earned its status as a media favorite: It conducts lots of polls, provides detailed interpretations of what it thinks the results mean, asks timely and probing questions that hone in on the political world’s interests (like whether the president’s endorsement helps in high-profile Senate races), and even hosts online polls about which race it should poll next.

But it is a bit jarring to hear a pollster say, “We’re absolutely rooting in the race. We don’t want Richard Burr to get reelected,” as PPP’s Tom Jensen declared to Politico last year. (Jensen did go on to say, “But our reputation is predicated on getting it right, and we’re not going to cook the numbers just to tweak Richard Burr’s nerves. They are what they are.”) Burr is a first-term Republican North Carolina senator who has complained that PPP’s partisan affiliation is largely ignored and that his numbers in PPP’s polls seem strangely low compared to his numbers in other polls.

Indeed, the PPP client list reads like a who’s who of
North Carolina Democratic politics. Publications that cited the firm’s polls without mentioning any Democratic affiliation include the Washington Post, Politico, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Dayton Daily News, the Austin American-Statesman, AOL’s Politics Daily, The Atlantic, The Hill, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and local North Carolina television stations. One GOP consultant in the state notes that the firm’s name echoes those of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University and the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at the University of North Carolina, two genuinely nonpartisan educational institutions. The consultant speculates that PPP benefits from the perceived association.

It’s not just Republicans who question the firm’s results and accuse it of playing favorites. In February, as the Democratic primary to decide who would run against Burr began heating up, candidate Ken Lewis complained that Debnam had donated $2,400 to one of his rivals, Cal Cunningham.