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Polling and anti-poll polemics

Arianna Huffington, a personal friend and professional nemesis, recently resurrected an attack on a poll we conducted nearly a decade ago. Like many politicos, Huffington is schizophrenic about polls — when she is not issuing fatwas against participating in them, she is an avid consumer.

I’m not a kiss-and-tell consultant, but I think the story behind this survey, and Huffington’s inaccurate rendition of it, provides a useful glimpse into both polling and her anti-poll polemics.

Arianna summarized her complaint in a post ominously headlined “Clinton Colombia Connection … Goes A Long Way Back.” Purportedly “follow[ing] the stink rising off the Clinton/Colombia connection,” Huffington “reveals” that under President Clinton, the United States had a policy toward Colombia and even used aid as part of that policy. Ms. Huffington is “shocked” and proceeds to round up the usual suspects.

My bit part in this high drama of international intrigue focuses on a poll we conducted in 1999 for Lockheed Martin. Huffington’s lurid telling, which misses reality by a mile, casts this poll as “a smart bomb aimed directly at the White House … which certainly hit its mark.” Its goal, she said, was to “provide cover” for President Clinton’s — in her view either misguided or diabolical — effort to provide material support to Colombia’s war against drug lords.

Lockheed was an unusual client for us. From the outset, we made clear that we would not work on their defense contracting issues, but I was intrigued about the possibility of a serious study on the underexplored subject of drug policy.

What did we find? In 1999, 56 percent of Americans believed drug use was on the rise and there was substantial worry about the ease with which kids could buy drugs (as well as about healthcare and other issues).

More interestingly, we used several different techniques to probe the relative priority voters attached to four policy approaches — anti-drug education, law enforcement (arresting more dealers), interdiction and treatment. “Reducing the supply of drugs by preventing illegal drugs from being smuggled into the U.S.” consistently emerged as the public’s preferred policy. To my personal chagrin, treatment consistently brought up the rear.

We then dug deeper, asking about specific programs within each category, including, for example, funding anti-drug TV ads.

As part of that exercise, we asked voters in general terms whether they favored or opposed increased funding for interdiction efforts. Support was substantial.

Huffington roundly criticizes a subsequent question that asked whether voters supported or opposed spending $2 billion on tracking planes for interdiction.

She assumes the question was tailor-made to serve the client’s interest. In fact, the opposite was true — I insisted on including the item, fearing that whatever support people might express for interdiction in general might evaporate at the thought of vast spending on airplanes. It did not — voters favored spending on the planes by 56 percent-29.

The airplanes weren’t for Colombia, however. They were for the U.S. — a fact clearly stated in the question. When I briefed Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly on the results he was delighted, telling me he had been trying to get more tracking planes, but had been unable to obtain the funding and thought this demonstration of public interest would help.

It may have. The U.S. Customs Service subsequently bought several and used them to stop thousands of tons of drugs from entering the U.S.

And what of the tie between the poll and the lurid tale of billions for drug wars in Colombia’s jungles? Oops. There was none. The poll was all about U.S. interdiction efforts.

I don’t expect a correction from Arianna, though. As we’ve learned in our word-of-mouth studies, exciting stories are much more fun than simple truths.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

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