Gov. Rell's Staff Got Advance Peek At Q Poll Results
By JON LENDER
The Hartford Courant
October 29, 2009
The director of the Quinnipiac University Poll this summer gave advance results to Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office for a poll that was not announced publicly until the following day — one that showed Rell's public approval rating had slipped from 72 percent to 65 percent in three months.
Newly released Rell administration e-mails show that on July 21, Quinnipiac poll director Douglas Schwartz gave results to Rell's longtime press aide Chris Cooper. Cooper had been asked to call Schwartz by Rell's chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody.
Once he received the poll numbers, Cooper relayed them to Moody, who then sent them in an e-mail marked "confidential" to Kenneth Dautrich, the University of Connecticut pollster and professor whose work for Rell in a $223,000 contract is now being investigated by several state agencies for possible improper political use of taxpayer funds.
Dautrich interpreted the results by saying "65 is very good" and observing that in the three decades since Ella Grasso was governor, only former Gov. John G. Rowland and Rell "have topped 65."
The episode surfaced this week among a batch of e-mails released by the Rell administration in response to reporters' freedom of information requests, and it trained an unwelcome spotlight on the Hamden-based university polling outfit that has gained national prestige in recent years.
The "Q-Poll," as it is sometimes called, has been tracking major races for mayor in New York City and governor in New Jersey in Tuesday's upcoming election, and in the past has polled the presidential swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Candidates and their political operatives perpetually thirst for any piece of advance polling information that will help them plan strategies or prepare a public response. Rell is still deciding whether to seek re-election next year, and her staffers have done all they can this year to gauge public opinion about her standing with voters during a prolonged standoff with legislative Democrats over the state budget.
Schwartz did not respond to questions about the Quinnipiac poll's policies on advance disclosure of results. Instead, a New York public relations firm contacted The Courant to defend Schwartz's action, but declined to describe the polling organization's policies and practices on giving candidates or others advance peeks at its data.
"To assure the integrity of the polling process, we cannot discuss how it is distributed," said Patrick M. Smith, executive vice president of Rubenstein Associates Inc. "But the Quinnipiac University Poll has worked hard to maintain its independence, providing no special treatment to any office holder, candidate or media."
Asked about Schwartz's advance disclosure of the poll results, Smith said, "What Doug did complied with our practices, which have been carried forth in every state in which we poll."
Smith declined to give any information on when it is acceptable under the poll's rules to give advance information, or to whom.
It was also unclear whether Moody's disclosure of the advance information to Dautrich — who is not a member of Rell's staff — may have violated any understanding that Schwartz and the Q-Poll may have had with the governor's office.
While the political polling business has no standardized code of ethics with regard to disclosing polling information to certain people in advance, a spokesman for the American Association for Public Opinion Research said pollsters need to consider their credibility with the public when they undertake such an action.
"It can make you vulnerable to questions from journalists or others," said the national organization's past president, Richard A. Kulka, an executive for a research survey firm in North Carolina. "It's not that it's a huge violation of polling ethics ... but a lot of people would argue that it's not a good thing to do, and my impression is not that many people do it."
He added, "I think the important thing is to be transparent about what one does." If a pollster gives advance information to one candidate or operative but not another, he ought to be able to say, "I had my reasons," and explain them, Kulka said.
He added that if the pollster "doesn't say anything about it and it's all very secretive, then I think it creates a different look on things."
According to the newly released Rell administration e-mails, the incident unfolded on July 21, the day before the scheduled release of the new Quinnipiac poll that would show the Republican governor at her lowest approval rating ever up to then — a still-enviable 65 percent.
"Can you call Doug Schwartz?" Moody asked Cooper in a 3:44 p.m. e-mail on July 21.
"He just called me back," Cooper replied in a 4:02 p.m. e-mail to Moody, adding: "Gov's approval down to 65 percent from 72 percent. Legislative D's [Democrats'] approval is at 39 percent. ... Schwartz says in all states they poll, Governors' approvals are down about 10 percent (Gov Rell down 7 percent). Doug also notes that 65 percent is a very healthy approval rating under any scenario, much less this current budget scenario."
Moody then sent the information via e-mail to Dautrich at 4:22 p.m. under the "confidential" label. He responded at 6:07 p.m. with the e-mail calling 65 percent "very good." He added a caution: "The trend is not good — BUT, we know the potential floor is 50, since it is 50 that approve of her job on the [state] budget. ... That's still not too bad."
The poll results were announced publicly July 22. The next morning, Dautrich followed up with another e-mail to Moody saying that 58 percent of survey respondents said Rell deserves re-election, up 5 percentage points from the year before — and he enthusiastically noted that "most of the increase comes from independents!" He added: "So, in terms of electoral positioning, the Gov has fortified her prospects over the past six months! The important trend is up, not down. Congrats."
July wasn't the only time that Moody got the results early. Rell's approval rating dipped again — to 59 percent — in a Quinnipiac poll announced Sept. 16, and a Sept. 15 Moody e-mail to Dautrich shows she also was aware of that result a day in advance. All she said was that she learned it in a "confidential" manner.
This week's release of e-mails led to other developments Wednesday.
For one, Rell refused to explain another e-mail that appears to contradict her statement to reporters two weeks ago that she didn't know Dautrich was helping her campaign committee with the preparation of a poll last spring until she "read it in the paper" this month.
In an e-mail April 7, Moody told Dautrich the governor thought a poll draft he had sent Moody was "great."