Like Billy Flynn in a Chicago courtroom Obama’s speech to Congress was all razzle-dazzle. It takes a silver tongue to spend a trillion dollars then say you’re against big government and get away with it. I don’t know who else could have done it. Surely not Bobby Jindal.
Politics is pretty discouraging these days – so it was a relief this morning when an email sailed in saying Public Policy Polling had done a survey about Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt.
The Democrats at PPP have announced triumphantly that (when it comes to leaving the best legacy) Hunt trumps Jesse 43% to 37% – which reminded me of the first poll Arthur Finkelstein ever took for Jesse.
How Arthur – a Jewish cab driver’s son from Brooklyn whose grandparents immigrated from Lithuania – got tied up (for 18 years) with a bunch of southern rednecks is a story in itself.
Back in 1972 when Tom Ellis (the Raleigh lawyer) was putting together Jesse’s first campaign he called Jim Buckley (Bill Buckley’s brother) – two years before Buckley had been elected to the Senate in New York not as a Republican or Democrat but as the nominee of the Conservative Party. The message came back to Mr. Ellis from Buckley loud and clear: Hire Arthur Finkelstein.
So Arthur took a poll and flew down to Raleigh and the meeting was a disaster from the start. It was a case study in why candidates either take polls or lose. Because Mr. Ellis found out just about everything his (and Jesse’s) political instincts were telling them about the campaign was dead wrong.
Arthur flipped opened the poll and the first words out of his mouth were Jesse was 40 points behind.
It was like he’d doused Jesse in cold water.
Incumbent Senator B. Everett Jordan had lost in the Democratic primary to Congressman Nick Galifianakis and it looked to Mr. Ellis (and Jesse) like Galifianakis – who was liberal, Greek, and virtually unknown – was a gift from the political gods.
So being forty points behind came as a shock.
Tom Ellis growled, Explain that, and Arthur said it was simple: That 70% of the voters were Democrats while only 20% were Republicans.
Then, trying to be helpful, flipping pages, Arthur said, The good news is no one knows Jesse.
What he meant was as Jesse became known he’d naturally gain in the poll.
But Arthur missed that for ten years Jesse had been doing TV editorials on WRAL and on statewide radio and it was an article of faith to him (and Mr. Ellis) that he was popular from Murphy to Manteo – which was why they thought he could win the Senate race.
Jesse turned beet red and pointed to a stack of boxes sitting in the corner and said there were 10,000 index cards in those boxes – one for each person who’d written him over the past ten years about his editorials – and what the heck did Arthur mean no one knew him?
Arthur said 10,000 people was about one half a percent of the voters and, yes, Jesse was known in Raleigh – but Raleigh was only 20% of the state. Worse, Arthur said, in Raleigh half the people thought Jesse hung the moon but the other half didn’t like him at all.
Jesse’s face got redder and he pointed to the poll, How much did that thing cost?
Arthur told him (it was something like $7,000 or $10,000) and Jesse turned in his chair and looked at Mr. Ellis as if to say, Well, you might as well have just lit a match and burned up $10,000 as taken that poll.
The other bit of good news, Arthur said, was President Nixon was walloping George McGovern in North Carolina.
Now to Mr. Ellis, at first, that did sound like good news. But the more he thought about it the more it began to feel like another dose of cold water. Let me get this straight, he said. Jesse’s losing. But Nixon’s winning. So a lot of conservative Democrats are voting for Nixon and Galifianakis?
Arthur said, yep, and Jesse erupted, said he didn’t know anyone who was voting for both Nixon and Galifianakis then added, You didn’t really poll anyone, did you? You just made up those numbers.
Arthur was in trouble and knew it and it got worse. Jesse growled he wanted Arthur to give him the name and address of every person he’d polled and Arthur blanched and said he couldn’t do that because he’d promised the people he polled anonymity – which confirmed Jesse’s suspicion the whole thing was a hoax. He stood up, said pretty clearly he didn’t believe in polls, then couldn’t get out of the room fast enough.
But Tom Ellis had nothing if not an open mind – he sat there for eight hours with Arthur going through the poll, listening and learning, and when they finished they’d done a pretty rare thing in politics: Come up with a strategy to win an election.
One other thing happened after that meeting: Jesse – even if he didn’t believe in polls – went into a blue funk that lasted for eight weeks. Later Mr. Ellis (who is a golfer) described it this way: For the next eight weeks it was ‘hit the ball and drag Jesse.’
As a result Tom Ellis didn’t show Jesse another poll for ten years.
And here’s what else is odd: Back in the 1970s and 80s Republicans took polls all the time. Long polls. Polls with 60 or 70 questions and hundreds of pages of statistics. Tom Ellis’s mantra was if you’re going to spend $5 million on TV ads – spend $500,000 on polls to be sure they work.
Today, polling has become a lost art – at least for Republicans. This morning a political friend send me a poll about spending and taxes in North Carolina. It was 30 questions and a handful of pages. Worse, not one question was about North Carolina’s budget crisis. They were all generic questions like, Is the economy on the right track or wrong track? Or, Do you favor or oppose raising taxes?
Whoever took the poll didn’t do any research. They didn’t ask one specific question about how voters feel about North Carolina’s budget shortfall. Or Perdue cutting spending 9%. Or closing prisons. So whoever took the poll doesn’t have one shred of real information to build a strategy on: Like Tom Ellis and Arthur Finkelstein did in 1972.
To be continued… Jesse Sees His Second Poll.
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