Tom DeLays little pollster in better times

Once during the mid-1990s, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) embarrassed me so badly that it’s painful even now to recall.

During a luncheon of several hundred of his closest supporters — Texas heavy hitters — he proudly introduced a D.C.-based consultant (who shall remain nameless here) as his “big pollster” and then me as his “little pollster.”

Once during the mid-1990s, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) embarrassed me so badly that it’s painful even now to recall.

During a luncheon of several hundred of his closest supporters — Texas heavy hitters — he proudly introduced a D.C.-based consultant (who shall remain nameless here) as his “big pollster” and then me as his “little pollster.”

Yes, I was once DeLay’s “little pollster.” I had done some work for his first reelection campaign, in 1986, while with Tarrance & Associates. After forming my own firm in 1988, I polled for his reelection campaigns through 1997.

But from 1995 on, DeLay was transformed from “bugman” and “just a congressman from Sugar Land” to national power broker. Suddenly, out-of-state handlers whom I had never heard of before, with names like Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, were calling the campaign shots and I was eventually the odd man out.

In 1999, one of the now-infamous duo called me from Washington saying they wanted a “local poll.” I drafted a questionnaire along the same lines we had hewn to for almost a decade. The survey included a balance of positive and negative questions about the congressman.

There was one particular question in the draft, though, that drew the ire of DeLay’s Washington crowd. The item asked voters about a Democratic charge that DeLay had lied under oath regarding some aspects of his pest-control business. Angered by DeLay’s maneuvers in the Clinton impeachment process, Democrats were now really coming after him with this sort of attack. So we asked whether “Tom DeLay deliberately lied under oath to mislead others, or the allegations were false and merely an attempt by opponents to smear him.”

Even hinting that anyone thought DeLay may have lied offended the sensibilities of the D.C. brain trust. I was subjected to an obscenity-laced diatribe and never heard from any of them again. That 1999 poll was never fielded, at least by me.

The early days, however, bring many pleasant memories. DeLay himself was always open to new ideas and experimentation. Looking back over the projects I conducted for him, I discovered some path-breaking work. The most notable was a “census poll” conducted in October 1988.

DeLay commissioned the survey that foreshadowed the micro-targeting that’s so much the rage these days. We did interviews with representatives of more than 2,000 households in 14 key ZIP codes. The data collected were used to shape campaign tactics for each ZIP code.

Some ZIPs were so demographically homogeneous in GOP-like ways that they received only a turnout mailer and get-out-the-vote call. Other, less-solid ZIP codes needing persuasion received a “Tom DeLay accomplishments” mailer and voter-ID calls. Still other ZIP codes were taken off the board altogether and ignored. This is all standard procedure today, using enhanced database targeting, but in 1988 it was innovative.

DeLay was also open to academic notions about “opinion leaders” and how they influence the opinions of mass publics. In 1990 we polled 300 people in his district who held some civic, professional or business leadership post, knowing their opinions could help us to enlist their support in building a strong, permanent base. DeLay may be the only congressman ever to commission an “opinion leader” poll in his district.

DeLay always seemed respectful of public opinion whenever I presented poll results. He never took favorable opinion for granted and always seemed to recognize that favorable ratings must be earned.

Not every politician responds that way. Some seem contemptuous of “stupid voters.” Perhaps DeLay’s respect for public opinion explains his decision to leave.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.