Liberal groups stir the pot with independent polling

Liberal bloggers and activists are commissioning polls as a way to shape the political debate, but their results aren’t always what fellow activists would like.

A poll commissioned by the liberal website Firedoglake last week showed Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) down 17 points. Snyder promptly announced his retirement, citing the difficult reelection campaign ahead.

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When the liberal blog released another poll showing a second member in similar standing, a Republican release noted that the lawmaker, Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), had been “FireDogged.”

And Democratic reactions to the polls have often been strong, especially when the data shows the party’s members in unenviable political positions, as many have been early in the 2010 cycle.

Democratic leaders view the polls as a liability, especially with the appetite for such data so high in the media. Activist groups have filled a void in releasing polling that party committees almost always keep to themselves.

The automated SurveyUSA polls were the first Firedoglake has commissioned, and it promises more to come, starting Wednesday. In releasing its polls publicly, it joins efforts that have recently taken off, including those of the liberal blog Daily Kos, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Public Policy Polling (PPP), a liberal-leaning firm that conducts its own surveys.

After Firedoglake released its polls, polling expert Nate Silver dissected the questions it asked and determined the poll to be a dud. The polls focused on the individual-mandate aspect of healthcare reform, which liberals tend to dislike, and asked several questions about it.

While he doesn’t dismiss liberal groups commissioning their own polls, Silver said they need to be smart about it.

“If they’re intentionally provoking certain Democrats to be scared about passing healthcare, as a bill I support, then I don’t like that,” Silver said. “[Firedoglake founder] Jane Hamsher is smart enough to know that the upshot of this poll has nothing to do with the individual mandate. It’s just going to scare the hell out of Blue Dogs in these districts.”

Hamsher said the Democratic candidates wound up faring so poorly in the poll that the data didn’t provide a good picture of how the individual mandate is polling. But she, following Daily Kos’s policy, agreed to release the results regardless.

“People are saying, ‘Why would you release these polls that show Democrats are so bad?’ ” Hamsher said. “We didn’t expect to get that, and the only alternative is to spike the poll.”

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Hamsher said it’s wrong to blame her blog for Snyder’s decision to retire, as some have.

“There’s an expectation there that everything should be done for party loyalty,” Hamsher said. “We complained about that during the Bush administration, so it’s ironic that they should be aping that behavior.”

PPP Director Tom Jensen said a Democratic congressional staffer berated him over the phone after PPP tested Democratic alternatives to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in his 2010 reelection race.

PPP has conducted similar polls on alternatives to Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). It has also polled vulnerable House Democrats, including Snyder, in surveys that have been widely described as bad signs for Democrats.

“We’ve been pumping out massive quantities of bad information for Democrats,” Jensen said. “Our goal is to help elect as many Democrats out there as possible. If someone does better than Blanche Lincoln, we’re happy to get that out there.”

PPP’s goal is slightly different from Firedoglake’s, Daily Kos’s and PCCC’s, in that it isn’t necessarily pushing a policy position.

Still, the groups insist that even bad news can wind up being a good thing for Democrats. Jensen notes that Democrats aren’t necessarily any worse off without Snyder, who refused to raise money during the off-year and probably voted a little more with liberals than his constituents would have liked.

Dodd announced his retirement soon after PPP’s polling, and his replacement, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, carries a far superior political standing.

Adam Green, co-founder of PCCC, said the polls have proven helpful in pushing Democrats in the right direction.

Green pointed to a poll the PCCC put out asking Nevada voters whether Reid was a strong leader. Less than a quarter (24 percent) responded in the affirmative, and PCCC ran ads questioning his strength.

Some Democrats bristled at the tactic, but Green said he’s noticed a marked change in Reid’s decisiveness since then. He also noted that Reid’s aides soon began emphasizing their boss’s “strength” in their rhetoric.

“That was a great example of outside groups polling and releasing the information to politicians, and then seeing them change their behavior,” Green said.

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