Team Vitter shoots at messenger, misses


U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
  • U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

My Gambit column about veteran pollster Verne Kennedy’s latest survey in the governor’s race got a lot of people talking — including U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whose campaign staff quickly began trying to discredit Kennedy and his surveys. It was not pretty.

“I’ve been attacked before but this is the most vicious I’ve ever seen,” Kennedy told me in a telephone interview on Sunday (Aug. 9).

Kennedy’s latest poll had good news for Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, and very bad news for Vitter. Essentially, as explained farther down in this story, Kennedy’s poll had Angelle pulling even or slightly ahead of Vitter in the “raw” numbers. When black voter preferences were “redistributed” to reflect historic voting patters (i.e., overwhelmingly for Democrats), Edwards led the pack with more than 30 percent of the vote, with Vitter and Angelle tied at 21 percent. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne trailed with 12 percent.

Under either scenario, the Kennedy poll showed Vitter losing support among several of his core constituencies since May. (Kennedy polled the Louisiana electorate in May, June and July.) The senator wasted no time trying to shoot the messenger.

Kyle Ruckert, campaign manager for Vitter, sent an email blast accusing Kennedy of “fantasy-land polling.” He cited several alleged instances of Kennedy’s polls being widely off the mark, including Vitter’s 2010 Senate primary against former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor. Vitter won that primary with 88 percent of the GOP vote.

Ruckert’s email claims that Kennedy’s poll in that race had the two men “almost even” with Vitter leading 46-34 percent. (That’s not “almost even” — not even with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent — but politics is the mother of hyperbole.) “Kennedy’s poll was wrong by more than 40 points,” Ruckert wrote. At the end of his email, he concluded, “it’s silly season, and desperate candidates try desperate things.”

Kennedy, who is not polling for any gubernatorial candidate, says his two polls in Vitter’s 2010 primary election did not come close to the results cited by Ruckert’s email. Kennedy sent me a copy of an email he sent to Ruckert citing the actual results of his surveys. Far from showing Vitter’s primary contest close, Kennedy’s polls showed Vitter ahead by huge margins. In June 2009 (a year before the primary), Kennedy’s poll had Vitter leading Traylor 54-15 percent. In August 2010, Kennedy’s poll showed Vitter with an even bigger lead of 66-14 percent.

Kennedy called the Vitter camp’s response to his latest survey in the governor’s race “foolishness.”

“I asked Kyle Ruckert to share his sources, because I can’t find anything even close to what they’re saying,” Kennedy said. “I don’t expect them to send it to me.”

[UPDATE: Vitter campaign communications director Kyle Bolar sent me several links to several online stories that purported to quote a Verne Kennedy poll in the senator's primary reelection campaign from 2010. Those stories did indeed cite the numbers quoted more recently by Team Vitter — but there's no evidence whatsoever that those numbers actually came from Kennedy or that they were even part of his survey. I suspect those numbers were part of a Kennedy poll that tested various potential attacks against Vitter (no doubt his prostitution scandal), and then asked voters how they might vote once armed with that info. Interestingly, Vitter led even after all the negative info about him was given to survey respondents. Most of all, I suspect someone in the campaign of Chet Traylor, who ran against Vitter in the 2010 GOP primary (and who hired Kennedy as his pollster), leaked that info out as the poll's "raw" numbers when in fact they were "push" numbers that in no way reflected what Kennedy's real poll numbers showed. Kennedy says he did not release them and didn't even know about the release until this latest flap. In any event, the blog sites cited by Team Vitter clearly made no attempt to verify the puffed-up numbers by calling Kennedy, who is easily reachable. I spoke with Kennedy before running the July 2015 numbers I have cited — as I always verify poll numbers with the respective pollsters before putting them out. To say that Kennedy's numbers are "fantasy-land" because someone tried to leak a small portion of a poll is like saying Hemingway is a bad writer because you can grab one "ordinary" paragraph from one of his many great novels and hold it up as definitive evidence that he's a hack. Just my take on all this. — C.D.]

Kennedy’s poll numbers were widely reported — and widely misunderstood. His survey contained three sets of numbers that have become the topic of much conversation (and much misunderstanding). I reported on two of those results: the “raw” numbers showing the “committed” vote for each of the four candidates, and the numbers that included voters who are “leaning” toward one candidate or another. Those two sets of results reflect how poll respondents actually answered the questions put to them.

Moreover, Kennedy said he met with Ruckert and other Vitter aides before the results of his July survey were released. He said he planned to meet with all the candidates, as a professional courtesy. Kennedy’s polls are taken monthly for a group of 17 Louisiana businessmen. Some have already picked candidates but “about half” are still uncommitted, Kennedy said.

“I met with Vitter’s staff, with Kyle and two of his key people, to share the results with them so they would know what I found and what was coming,” Kennedy said. “They didn’t agree with the result. They didn’t strongly disagree. Their major feeling was that while Angelle had improved, they needed to go on the air and define him so he couldn’t grow. If they go on the air, it will be a third party making the attack.”

In that same meeting, Kennedy says he told Ruckert that Vitter should consider not even running for governor if the senator’s numbers keep slipping among his core constituencies — Republicans, Evangelicals and seniors.

Perhaps that’s what caused such a caustic response from Team Vitter.

“The difficulty for Vitter is those are his core groups,” Kennedy said. “They are producing most of his support. So if he’s falling there, it’s not good for him. In meeting with his staff and going over it, I did raise one question that got them very tense. Basically, looking through the crosstabs and the numbers, I said my advice is free, but I would recommend that Vitter do a survey about a week before qualifying to see where he is. Because if the trend continues — and I’m not saying it will — but if it continues he could catch himself in a situation where he can’t make the runoff. If that happens, his political career is over. That made them very uneasy, but I was just trying to give them good political advice.”

The key point made by Kennedy, in my view, is that he was not predicting that Vitter would continue to slide. Remember, the senator has close to $10 million to spend on the race (including vast sums raised by “independent” SuperPacs.) Once Vitter and other candidates start spending, all bets are off. Anything could happen — including Vitter surging back to a big lead.

Kennedy’s poll numbers were widely reported — and widely misunderstood. His survey contained three sets of numbers that have become the topic of much conversation (and much misunderstanding). I reported on two of those results: the “raw” numbers showing the “committed” vote for each of the four candidates, and the numbers that included voters who are “leaning” toward one candidate or another. Those two sets of results reflect how poll respondents actually answered the questions put to them.

The third set of results “redistributed” black voters’ responses based on historic voting patterns. Redistributing black votes in a survey is a perfectly legitimate exercise, especially for campaign insiders and political junkies who want to project the poll results forward based on what they reasonably expect to happen on Election Day.

To get the full picture of how all this works, consider the three sets of results. In the raw numbers, the results were:

Scott Angelle 16%

David Vitter 15%

John Bel Edwards 14%

Jay Dardenne 8%

Undecided/Not Sure 47%

When someone responded “not sure,” survey interviewers immediately asked if they were “leaning” toward any particular candidate. Some then picked a candidate. When the “leaners” are added in, the results were:

Scott Angelle 24%

David Vitter 22%

John Bel Edwards 20%

Jay Dardenne 13%

Undecided/Not Sure 21%

Here are the results with African-American voter preferences “redistributed” to reflect historic voting patterns (90% for Democrats, 10% for Republicans):

Edwards 34%

Vitter and Angelle 22%

Dardenne 12%

Undecided/Not Sure 12%

Kennedy notes that the 12% undecided in “redistributed” figures are all white voters. He redistributed 100 percent of the African-American votes, which could have the effect of over-stating their influence by several percentage points. That is, Edwards’ share of the vote could be around 30 percent (not 34 percent), but he would still be in the lead.

As for the efficacy of redistributing African-American responses in his polls, Kennedy had this to say:

“I learned 25 years ago that if I was going to be accurate in my projections of elections, after looking at results form many previous elections, African Americans are going to vote about 90 percent Democrat and 10 percent Republican. So I started redistributing African-American vote back around 1990, and it improved the accuracy of my projections enormously.

“To look simply at the top line results, especially when you have only one Democrat and several Republicans, you’re not going to have accurate results.

“In our latest survey, for example, I have one or two trial heats where Vitter is getting 25 percent of the black vote. Does anybody believe that will happen? He’ll get about 5 percent of that vote. African Americans are not engaged heavily in this election yet. They have not yet received information that would be of interest to them. So you must redistribute that vote or you’re not going to be accurate.”

When Kennedy’s poll leaked out last week, I reported only the “raw” and “leaner” numbers because I was not trying to project the results forward. Think of it this way: A poll is like a photograph. It reflects voter attitudes and opinions at a particular point in time. Over time, the picture usually changes — especially when candidates start spending money and attacking one another. A poll, therefore, is not a crystal ball that predicts the outcome of an election. It merely shows where the candidates are at a particular moment during the campaign.

In not reporting the redistributed numbers, I didn’t intend to discount the validity of Kennedy’s analysis, nor did I intend to slight Edwards. However, when the redistributed numbers began circulating, people wondered why where were such different results from the same poll. I hope this explanation helps.

As for explaining Vitter’s slide among his core constituencies, Kennedy and I have similar theories.

Back in March and April, all surveys showed Vitter with a wide lead over his opponents. He looked invincible. But, as I reported in Gambit in May, more than 70 percent of Louisiana voters were not paying much attention to the governor’s race. That meant that a significant percentage of the support for all of the candidates — including Vitter — was “soft” and subject to change. Between March and July, more voters started to pay attention to the race (though many are yet to be engaged). When this happened, many of Vitter’s “soft” voters no doubt got reminded of some things about him (i.e., his prostitution scandal, his temper, etc.) and decided to go elsewhere.

At the same time, Angelle began advertising his candidacy heavily in Acadiana, central and north Louisiana — areas where Vitter historically runs well. That, combined with the not-surprising erosion of some of Vitter’s “soft” support, produced the results of Kennedy’s poll.

Kennedy said a significant number of Vitter’s “soft” supporters among Republicans, Evangelicals and seniors have come to view Angelle as a viable alternative.

“Vitter’s soft support is falling back. One of the telling things in my crosstabs involves a Vitter-Edwards runoff question. Among white voters, if you look at how individuals voted in the primary ballot question, when you ask those who voted for Angelle how they’ll vote in the runoff [between Vitter and Edwards], only 51% say ‘Vitter.’ Among Dardenne supporters, only 34% said they would vote for Vitter. … That tells me a lot — that he can’t get the votes [he needs] from his fellow Republicans.

“Vitter does well with active, church-going Evangelical Christians against Edwards. But in the primary Angelle and Vitter are tied among Evangelical Christians. Historically, that was always one of Vitter’s strong votes. In our May survey, Vitter was dependent on three groups — hard-core Republicans, seniors and Evangelicals. He’s fallen in all of those categories.”

This much is certain: All three candidates will start spending millions later this month or in early September. The Oct. 24 primary will be a sprint, not a marathon.

And David Vitter has a lot more money to spend getting his message out than any of his opponents.

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