Politics » Politics Feature

Polls and More Polls

The race between gubernatorial candidates becomes a numbers game.

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As the year 2009 nears its end, and the 2010 election year beckons, two sets of numbers become even more important.

One set, of course, is the amount of money raised by candidates for this or that office. Another set relates to poll figures. And both sets have the capacity to affect each other.

Recently mentioned in this space was a poll commissioned by the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Mike McWherter. At least one recipient of a phone call from McWherter's pollster, a local physician, regarded it as a "push poll" selectively touting the Jackson businessman's virtues.

Results from that poll have just been released, and, in all fairness, it seems to have been somewhat more evenhanded than the previous description indicated. At least the release indicates that laudatory descriptions of all candidates, not just McWherter, were included along with the questions asked.

But, as is typical of campaign-conducted polls — at least those which are later published — the person who pays the pollster usually finds the results gratifying. So it is with candidate McWherter's poll, which begins with a "trial heat" showing McWherter leading his Democratic rivals with 26 percent, with all of them polling in single digits.

When the candidate descriptions are taken into account, however, McWherter still leads, but others rise disproportionately. As Nashville blogger Sean Braisted notes, "The surprising aspect of this poll to me is not so much that McWherter goes from 26 to 34 percent when voters are reminded that his father was the governor and that he owns a business, but that Jim Kyle jumps from fourth place with 5 percent to second place with 19 percent when people find out about his qualifications." (See cover story, p. 18.)

Hence, the title of Braisted's post: "McWherter Poll Shows Inherent Kyle Strength."

Then there are straw votes, taken at various political events, sometimes as a fund-raising device for the sponsors (with ballots vended for X amount of money), sometimes not.

Two recent circumstances — one on the Republican side, one on the Democratic side — have crystallized skepticism concerning the value of straw votes, the kind usually taken at cattle-call receptions for candidates in this or that locality.

The Tennessee Conservative Union held one in Knoxville earlier this month in which the four major Republican gubernatorial candidates were measured. Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville won that one with 123 votes; Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam had 80 votes; and Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp had 70. Memphis' GOP entry, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, had one (count 'em, one).

That might seem devastating for the Memphian, who also trails the others in fund-raising, but, interestingly enough, Gibbons' Republican rivals concurred at this past weekend's Pasta & Politics Dinner in Memphis with Gibbons' skepticism toward the Knoxville straw poll's possible meaning.

Most interestingly, Wamp, who has wondered out loud about Gibbons dropping out of the race, pooh-poohed the results as an indicator of Gibbons' long-range potential.

"All these things don't really matter in the big scheme of things," Wamp said. "Most often they're a matter of how many tables a candidate buys or how many tickets a candidate buys to an event." The Chattanoogan said a "scientific survey" would give a better idea and cited one he had done in July, which showed himself leading but the other three candidates — including Gibbons — bunched close behind.

"Gibbons was pretty strong in the Memphis media market, and this is a big county," Wamp said.

He noted, as did the others (and as had Gibbons himself) that the Memphis D.A. is not from the Knoxville area but will likely have a chance to get better known there.

Haslam, who is from Knoxville and serves as the city's chief executive, said, "I think straw votes are valuable, but it's always dangerous to read too much into them."

Nor would Ramsey, who won that poll, draw too many conclusions from it. "I did well, and that's all I care about," he said.

This past weekend there also was a straw poll for Democratic candidates that engendered more skepticism than credibility.

This one was held at a Democratic Party event in Kingsport that was scantily attended — most likely because of a University of Tennessee football game held at the same time on Saturday. Only three gubernatorial candidates attended — Memphis state senator Kyle, Dresden state senator Roy Herron, and Nashville businessman Ward Cammack — and the number of people who gathered to hear them numbered no more than 50, at best.

Yet straw-vote results, based on tickets sold for the pot-luck affair, were given out as follows: Herron, 85; Jackson businessman McWherter, 20; Kyle and Cammack, 12 each; and former state representative Kim McMillan, nine. There were 12 votes cast as undecided. All of that totals 150.

Cammack counted 149 and commented on his campaign website: "The Sullivan County straw poll. Amazing. Forty-seven people in the room, yet 149 votes cast. And, all counted before the speeches. Hmm. Some attendees denied votes. Subtlety Rating: Unimpressive. And, not worth the drive."

Kyle was similarly bemused by the announced vote totals and thought of passing along a tweet on the subject but was talked out of it by his aides.

As for Herron, he trumpeted the results in a press release which was headed "Roy Herron Wins Second Straight Straw Poll," and which included this sentiment: "I am humbled and grateful to the voters of Sullivan County. The people here in northeast Tennessee are just like those I represent in middle and west Tennessee: hard-working, family-loving, God-fearing people. I'm grateful for their kindness to me today."

And, within days, there was yet another Herron success, this one at last weekend's Estes Kefauver Memorial Dinner for Democrats in the Chattanooga area.

Under the head "Herron Goes Three-for-Three in Straw Poll Wins," these were the results: Herron, 152; Kyle, 79; McMillan, 30; McWherter, 25; and Cammack, 24.

Understandably, Herron was once again pleased, saying, "I'm very thankful to the people of Hamilton County for their votes and their confidence. Going to keep on working all across the state to earn people's trust and support."

And he's going to keep on paying attention to the care and feeding of straw polls, too, you can bet. Fair is fair. His Democratic opponents have been put on notice.

• It is not unusual, in the course of one-on-one election campaigns, for one candidate — and sometimes both — to propose joint appearances in the form of debates or forums. And conventional wisdom holds that one of the two candidates — the one considered to be the favorite — is likely to decline, overtly or indirectly.

The reasoning for such a refusal is the obvious one: Why give an underdog a position of parity?

So, a month or so ago, when the Memphis/Shelby County League of Women Voters sounded out both Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, the Democrat running in the December 1st special general election for state Senate District 31, and former state representative Brian Kelsey, her Republican opponent, about a joint appearance, it was not surprising that Pakis-Gillon would accept right away.

Nor was it extraordinary for Kelsey to put off giving a positive response. He, after all, was heavily favored — for reasons of name recognition, an impressive campaign war chest, and, not least, because he was the Republican running in an area, centered on Germantown, that is historically Republican.

Neither the league nor Pakis-Gillon wanted to leave it at that, however. They persisted in trying to get a straight answer from Kelsey.

It is fair to say that the response Kelsey gave to the Flyer last week was categorical: "Why should I waste my time with the League of Liberal Women Voters when I'm trying to deal with real voters?" Kelsey said. "Nobody's been more accessible to the voters than I've been."

As for debating Pakis-Gillon, Kelsey said, "What's to debate? She's a Barack Obama, big-spending liberal, and I'm a conservative in tune with the conservative sentiments of this district."

In short: No to the idea of debating.

Peg Watkins, president of the local league, professed to find Kelsey's characterization of her organization "amazing," maintaining that the league was formally nonpartisan and studiedly neutral concerning elections. "I'd be happy to send him a copy of our mission statement," she said.

And, indeed, when Kelsey was reminded that the immediate past president of the league, Dee Nollner, was a Republican, he grudgingly acknowledged the fact. "Okay, there are a few, but mainly they're the League of Liberal Women Voters, and I don't have time for them."

For her part, Pakis-Gillon said that she intended to represent the entire community, Democrats and Republicans. "I don't put a label on myself," she said. "I've worked with members of both parties on community projects, and they're all entitled to representation in the Senate."

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