Last week, as it’s done every week for nearly two years, New Jersey-based Rasmussen Reports cycled a question about Congress into its nightly political tracking poll. Over two nights, around 1,000 voters (they must be voters or say they are to be included in the poll) were asked by an automated, voice-activated pollster whether they they would support a Democratic candidate or a Republican candidate for Congress, were the election held today.
The result was surprisingly close. Only 40 percent of the voters who talked to Rasmussen Reports said they’d support the Democrats, while 39 percent said they’d support the Republicans. “Are Republicans winning the public relations battle over spending in the $800-billion-plus economic stimulus package?” asked company founder and Publisher Scott Rasmussen in the company’s news release. “This marks the lowest level of support for the Democrats in tracking history and is the closest the two parties have been on the generic ballot.”
The question, the result and the carnival barker spin — all are trademarks of Rasmussen Reports, a pollster that has become ubiquitous in the conversation of Republicans and conservative pundits. It is not a partisan polling firm, and it is not hired to ask partisan questions the way that, for example, John Zogby was hired to test the mocking anti-Obama questions of a conservative radio host. Rasmussen is influential because its carefully crafted questions that produce answers that conservatives like — 59 percent of voters agreeing with Ronald Reagan’s view of big government, a 10-point plurality of voters trusting their economic judgment over President Obama’s — are bolstered by highly accurate campaign polling. The result is that polls with extremely favorable numbers for Republican stances leap into the public arena every week, quickly becoming accepted wisdom.
Rasmussen and three members of his staff meet every morning to discuss what questions they can add to their daily tracking polls of politics, consumer confidence and consumer spending. “If you were working at an old newspaper,” explained Rasmussen in a Monday telephone interview, “you’d ask a question and assign reporters to find out what people were thinking. That’s what we do with our polls; we say, let’s take the temperature of this issue or that issue.”
While those news-cycle-dependent questions bring plenty of attention to the company, the rolling congressional “generic ballot” poll provided a good example of Rasmussen’s influence. On “The Beltway Boys,” the Saturday evening Fox News show that Weekly Standard Editor Fred Barnes co-hosts with Mort Kondracke, Barnes cited Rasmussen as proof that Republicans were winning the stimulus message war. “Look where Republicans come out,” said Barnes. “They come out one point behind the Democrats. The Democrats have only a one-point lead!”
On Sunday, Cokie Roberts cited the same numbers to explain to her fellow “This Week” panelists why Republicans opposed the stimulus. “They’re … looking at polls that are showing them about even with Democrats in the generic congressional match-up,” said Roberts. Neither she nor Barnes cited Rasmussen by name — the polling result, mentioned frequently by Republicans, had become part of conventional wisdom.
Other pollsters, whose results sometimes vary greatly from Rasmussen’s, respect the rival firm’s process and its ability to grab headlines. Brent Goldrick, a vice president at Financial Dynamics who conducts the monthly Hotline-Diageo poll, was surprised at the closeness of Rasmussen’s generic ballot poll. His most recent poll, conducted in the days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, gave Democrats a 46-22 lead in the congressional generic ballot and gave Democrats in Congress an approval rating 23 points higher than the Republicans. “As the Republicans have become a little more engaged in the policy debate,” said Goldrick, “it doesn’t surprise me that numbers would come up from 22 percent.”
It’s hard for pollsters to knock Rasmussen’s accuracy, especially its election polling. The final pre-election Hotline-Diageo poll had given Obama a 50-45 point lead over John McCain, while the final Rasmussen Reports poll gave Obama a 52-46 lead. Both were close to the result, but Rasmussen was closest.
But where Rasmussen Reports really distinguishes itself, and the reason it’s so often cited by conservatives, is in its issue polling. Before the stimulus debate began, Rasmussen asked voters whether they’d favor stimulus plans that consisted entirely of tax cuts or entirely of spending. Tax cuts won every time, and Republicans began citing this when they argued for a tax-cut-only stimulus package.
Every week that the economic stimulus package was being debated by Congress, Rasmussen asked voters whether they “favor[ed] or oppose[ed] the economic recovery package proposed by Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats.” While other pollsters, such as Gallup and CBS News, found stimulus support rising as high as 60 percent, Rasmussen never saw it rise above 45 percent. It was the only pollster to find support for the plan falling below opposition, in a poll conducted on Feb. 2-3. Not only did Bill Kristol get an early look at the data and use it to make the case against the plan, Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., cited Rasmussen to argue that support for the Democratic version of the stimulus was tumbling. At a Feb. 10 briefing, Pence quibbled with a reporter who cited Gallup instead of Rasmussen.
“If we’re gonna talk polls for a minute,” said Pence, “and in the communications shop at a conference we occasionally look at polls, is support for the stimulus bill has been dropping ever week since it was first introduced. I expect there’ll be more polls that come out that demonstrate that public support is continuing to drop using the same methods and the same research.” A poll being conducted that day and the day after would actually reveal that Obama’s campaign for the stimulus was driving its support back up into the mid-40s. Still, the Rasmussen poll, buttressing other media polls that showed stimulus support lagging the president’s own ratings, was invaluable to Republican arguments that they were standing with the country against an unpopular bill.
Scott Rasmussen is well aware of how Republicans use his polling to make their arguments. “Republicans right now are citing our polls more than Democrats because it’s in their interest to do so,” he said on Monday. “I would not consider myself a political conservative — that implies an alignment with Washington politics that I don’t think I have.”
But in the early days of his polling firm, when it was named Rasmussen Research, Rasmussen balanced a cold analysis of politics and consumer opinion with advocacy for some conservative views. For a short time around the 2000 elections he wrote a column for WorldNetDaily, once arguing that President Bill Clinton had “ratified the Reagan Revolution” by declaring the end of big government in Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union speech. “From that moment forward,” wrote Rasmussen, “both Republicans and Democrats began to fight over their policy differences within the political framework created by America’s voters and articulated by President Reagan.”
In other columns and in a 2001 company-published book titled A Better Deal! Social Security Choice, Rasmussen made the case for privatizing the nation’s oldest entitlement program. “In fact, 46 percent of American adults say that relying on the government is riskier than letting workers invest for their own retirement,” wrote Rasmussen in a Jan. 10, 2001, column arguing that incoming President Bush should push for private accounts. “Just 36 percent say letting workers invest is more risky, while 18 percent are not sure.” In the book — not a huge seller, but promoted by Rasmussen at an August appearance at the libertarian Cato Institute — the pollster argued that “giving workers more control over their ‘contributions’ will put the ‘Security’ back in Social Security.”
Since then, Rasmussen’s business has boomed, aided in no small part by those “newspaper” questions that are blasted out to reporters and frequently buck up the Republican spin of the week. “Every pollster wants to promote his own research,” said Financial Dynamics’ Goldrick. “It makes sense for Rasmussen to promote questions that are more newsworthy.”
That was the take of Phil Kerpen, the policy director at Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group that collected more than 400,000 signatures of opposition to the stimulus. “He’s cited more frequently than other pollsters because he does more than anybody else,” said Kerpen. “His numbers are at least as accurate as anyone else’s. I think it was helpful to us when it looked like there was a big shift in public opinion against the stimulus. We definitely used it to give our activists some more encouragement.”
Scott Rasmussen couldn’t say whether his polls played a key role in the stimulus debate — after all, the bill passed. “But there have been times that our polling had an impact,” he said on Monday. “During the immigration debate, I think our polling — which showed the public heavily against the Senate compromise — was part of the reason that the compromise fell apart. The Senate acceded to public opinion. We’re simply reporting on what the public wants.”