Independents: Do They Really Hide from Pollsters?

Two star political reporters recently dropped the ball on the issue of measuring independent voters and their possible effect on the New Hampshire primary.

On Sunday, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, pushing the “independents-could-be-key” thesis, reported that, “Mark Penn, [Sen. Joe] Lieberman’s pollster, contended that his candidate’s support had been under-measured because polls did not reflect the views of independents.”

Was Penn saying that pollsters don’t catch any independents in their net when they conduct surveys? Penn surely knows that’s untrue — all the polls that we know of routinely include a representative sample of independents, as a spokeswoman for Zogby International confirmed.

Penn didn’t return our phone calls. But it appears that in his remarks to Nagourney he was simply doing what he’s paid to do — spinning. Lieberman will do better than expected, Penn is telling us, because all those independents planning to vote for him aren’t being counted.

It also appears that Nagourney was doing what he presumably is not paid to do: swallowing Penn’s spin hook, line and sinker. Surely Nagourney, like Penn, knows that polls do in fact measure support from independents. But Penn’s spin conveniently fits the thesis of Nagourney’s story — that independents are key — so he never questions it.

Judy Woodruff made the same mistake. Touting the potential impact of independents in tonight’s vote, New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson yesterday told Woodruff on CNN’s “Inside Politics”: “It’s hard to poll those people because generally they’re not active supporters. So pollsters will call people that have actively gone out and voted in the past. These people fall off the radar screen.”

But that’s not true of any of the leading polls. They consider only whether a voter says he intends to vote this time, not his previous voter history. Like Nagourney, Woodruff didn’t call Benson on it.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a TV interviewer to say “That makes no sense” when a guest says something that in fact does not make sense. But is it too much to ask of the Times’ chief political reporter?

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.