National polling firm battling back amid controversy over fraud allegations

A national polling firm is fighting back after a week that included an industry censure and accusations of potential fraud.

Atlanta-based Strategic Vision, LLC, has become an increasing presence in public polling, releasing widely distributed polls on statewide races, national issues and the 2008 presidential race.

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But because the GOP firm has refused to share its methodology in a couple of 2008 primary states, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) on Wednesday formally censured the firm. That led well-known political polling blogger Nate Silver to look into the company’s data, and he unleashed a bombshell Friday morning by suggesting that Strategic Vision has cooked the books and made up its polling data.

Strategic Vision CEO David Johnson said Silver’s suggestion isn’t true.

“He’s got a good reputation, but I stand by our work,” Johnson said. “We’ve done the work, and we can prove that we’ve done it. The other thing is – if you look at our results, we’ve been accurate.”

Johnson told the The Hill he is considering legal action against both AAPOR and Silver, though it’s too early to tell what form that would take.

But he said that, even if he proves his case in court, much harm has already been done.

“At some point, even if we prove it and refute Nate Silver, where do we get back our reputation from what they’ve already posted?” Johnson said. “Who reads a retraction?”

Silver was careful in his wording to make clear that he wasn’t saying Strategic Vision definitely committed fraud. But he strongly hints that is the case.

At the heart of Silver’s case is the statistical rule that random sets of numbers, in large data sets, should be distributed in a uniform way.

Silver tested the last digit in every percentage polled in all of Strategic Vision’s surveys, which he suggested should be evenly distributed among all 10 digits.

But he found that, for instance, ‘8’ appeared at the end of a number in 60 percent more numbers than ‘1.’ He said it was “an incredible fluke – millions to one against.”

The suggestion, made patently but couched as to avoid legal trouble, is that someone invented the numbers and, for whatever reason, used ‘8’ as a last digit in an inordinate amount of numbers.

Silver compared the data to numbers from all 2008 presidential and Senate pollsters in his database, and those numbers show a much more even distribution of digits.

Silver followed up his initial analysis with an examination of Quinnipiac's University's polling data, which found that no digit occurred more than about 20 percent of the time more than another digit.

In an interview, Silver stresses that the data isn’t definitive, but it is overwhelming.

“My Spidey Sense says that there really is something foul going on here, but I’ve hedged that bet,” he said. “I might be wrong. … But there are a lot of circumstances there that would not necessarily lead one to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

One of those circumstances is the AAPOR rebuke, which is a rare occurrence.

Johnson said he received the initial request from the group and forgot to follow up on it. AAPOR then began to talk about pursuing the matter, and Johnson suggested that his competitors were behind the move.

AAPOR President Peter Miller said Johnson only gave the group partial information and bluntly refused to disclose certain things. Johnson said he complied with their requests, albeit after their deadline.

Miller said legal action on Johnson’s part would be “useless.”

“We basically disagreed with their view that they don’t have to disclose information about how they do their work,” Miller said. “That’s pretty much all we’ve done.”

Silver said Johnson’s threat was “cowardly” and accused Strategic Vision of being overly litigious.

Johnson said the series of events has caused a panic at his firm and that employees are fearful for their safety. He said they’ve been getting harassing text messages, and that their receptionist was verbally accosted in their parking lot by someone who referenced Silver’s blog.
 
“They’re very concerned – more so for their security,” Johnson said. “I don’t think Nate or AAPOR wants anyone to get hurt, but in this day and age, you don’t know what’s going to happen with some of these people who are on the blogs.”