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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?


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Jim Geraghty

In the previous cycle, Debnam made a pair of $2,300 contributions to Democrat Kay Hagan during her primary- and general-election bids for the U.S. Senate; she wound up defeating first-term incumbent Elizabeth Dole. (FEC records indicate that since 1995, Democratic candidates and committees have received $41,000 in donations from “Dean Debnam,” “C D Debnam,” “Carey Dean Debnam,” and “Carey Debnam”; the pollster has a daughter named Carey.) PPP has released polls on many races where Debnam has contributed to one of the candidates or relevant party committees, most notably those 2008 races involving Kay Hagan. The donations were not disclosed when the polls were released.

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In addition, back in December, Tom Jensen told a North Carolina television station that PPP had conducted a poll for another of Lewis’s rivals, Elaine Marshall, but he added that “we’re not actually part of any of the campaigns.” Lewis demanded that the firm include a disclaimer in future poll releases, a demand that was ignored.

In fact, the firm’s May poll on the Democratic primary featured one past client and one recipient of the maximum legal donation from Dean Debnam. Neither fact was mentioned in the release. In June, the firm told the Raleigh News and Observer that it did not plan to release any polling data on the runoff between Cunningham and Marshall because it was working for a private client, but it declined to disclose the identity of the client.

Many pollsters work for partisan clients, and Debnam and his staff are free to donate to any candidates they like. But not disclosing that one candidate is a recent client is problematic.

Overall, PPP has a reputation for reliability; in 2008, the Wall Street Journal looked at various pollsters’ results and ranked PPP among the best. Its last poll in the New Jersey governor’s race had Republican Chris Christie winning by six points (he won by four), its last poll in the Virginia governor’s race had Bob McDonnell winning by 14 (he won by 18), and its last poll in the Massachusetts special Senate election had Scott Brown by five (on the nose).

But this year in particular, PPP polls tend to have Democrats making up a larger share of the sample than one might expect in a midterm with strong headwinds against the incumbent party. In fact, in poll after poll, PPP samples have Democrats making up a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2008, at least according to exit polls conducted by CNN.  

In North Carolina, for example, PPP’s latest poll splits 46 percent Democrat, 36 percent Republican, and 18 percent independent. That’s a more heavily Democratic electorate than North Carolina had on Election Day 2008, when it split 42 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican, and 27 percent independent.



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