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March 3rd, 2014:

What the Trib’s pollsters miss about their own polls

Having published their poll results, Jim Henson goes back and analyzes their gubernatorial poll, pronouncing it all a big success.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

The partisan responses to the poll results have been similarly predictable. The Republican chorus is singing I-told-you-so, chalking up Davis’ position to the impact of the media pack reporting of her biographical fudges. The Democratic peanut gallery has pointed to the fact that the poll was in the field before Ted Nugent did a double live gonzo on Abbott’s thus far business-as-usual campaign.

The partisan responses are simultaneously more or less plausible, but in both cases frequently overstated – not a shocking state of affairs since we are, after all, in the middle of an election year. But these latest results reflect factors that are much more deeply rooted than the low-hanging fruit making headlines and feeding campaign emails: Abbot’s 11-point pre-Nugent advantage emerged from the relatively static underlying pattern of partisan identification in the state and the dynamics of candidate name recognition ­– both of which still add up to a significant disadvantage for Democrats.

None of which is to say that Davis’ campaign has collapsed, as some critics, both friendly and hostile, have suggested. These new numbers are less a sign of the decay of the Davis candidacy than a reversion toward the mean ­– that is, a return to the expected steady state. Davis’ 6-point deficit in the October 2013 UT/TT poll reflected the final dance of her very public coming out party as the excitement that propelled her into the race in the first place receded into the realities of day-to-day campaigning. At the time, Davis was in a unique position for a Texas Democrat, known by a greater share of the electorate than her Republican counterpart.

Davis now finds herself trailing by 11 points, but this current state reflects the underlying partisan composition of the electorate – not some major, event-driven shift in sentiment.

Maybe I’m the only person fixating on this, but as I said before, the problem with comparing the two polls is that in the first one they asked about three candidates – Davis, Abbott, and Libertarian Kathie Glass, who drew five percent – but in the second one they only asked about two. It seems likely to me that Glass would have drawn a few points away from Abbott, but even if you think the effect would have been more or less evenly distributed, the fact remains that Davis and Abbott likely would have had different numbers in a two-person matchup than they did in the three-person race that was polled. I say that makes the two polls not directly comparable, and I fail to understand why in two different articles so far neither Henson nor Daron Shaw has even mentioned this difference, if only to dismiss it as the useless obsession of some punk blogger. It’s a small thing, but I really don’t think I’m asking for too much for them to acknowledge the difference.

That may be a small thing, but this isn’t:

While Davis needs to both mobilize large groups of Democratic voters in an off-year election and persuade no small number of Republicans to defect, the task is becoming harder by the day. Among key groups that Davis might hope to court, Abbott looks stronger – at least so far. On the trial ballot, Abbott leads Davis 42 percent to 40 percent among suburban women;among Hispanics, favorable attitudes toward Abbott have increased from 21 percent in June 2013 to 30 percent in October to 39 percent in our most recent poll. Add to this that most of the Texas electorate, especially in non-presidential years, tends to be white — where Abbott leads Davis 57 percent to 32 percent — and Davis’ challenge only grows.

Maybe you looked at that 57-32 lead Abbott holds with Anglo voters in this poll and said “Huh, that’s a pretty big lead” and didn’t give it another thought. Or maybe you were curious enough to wonder how that might compare to other recent poll results in Texas, since putting a number in context always makes it more useful than not putting it in context. If only there were date from previous polls to which that could be compared.

Well, of course, such data does exist, as Jim Henson well knows since some of that data is his own. See those Texas poll results there on my sidebar? Let’s click through a few of the recent ones to see what they tell us about Anglo voter preferences in our fair state in the last election.

YouGov, Oct 31 – Nov 3: Romney 70, Obama 25

Texas Lyceum, Oct 2012 (page 422): Romney 67, Obama 28

UT/TT, Oct 2012 (page 112): Romney 67, Obama 24

In other words, according three different polls, one of which was Jim Henson’s own UT/Texas Trib poll, Mitt Romney was leading President Obama by a range of 39 to 45 points among Anglo voters, which is considerably more than Greg Abbott’s relatively puny 25-point lead with them over Wendy Davis. In fact, if you substitute the 57-32 numbers they found in favor of Abbott for the 67-24 numbers they had for Romney and recalculate the raw totals based on that, Romney’s lead drops from 14 points (53.88 to 39.75) to three points (47.38 to 44.5). And Henson wants us to believe this represents a “growing challenge” to Wendy Davis? Henson didn’t just bury the lede in his story, he first strangled it with a lamp cord, then covered up the grave with loose vegetation to throw off the searchers.

Well, sure, you say, but everybody knows that the makeup of the 2012 electorate was less Anglo than the electorate in a non-Presidential year like 2010 or 2014 would be. I’d agree with that, but guess what? We have 2010 poll data to look at, too, including a result from – you guessed it – Jim Henson:

Texas Lyceum, Oct 2010: Abbott 66, Radnofsky 20

UT/TT, Oct 2010 (page 62): Perry 60, White 30; (page 73): Abbott 63, Radnofsky 24

For some bizarre reason, the Lyceum poll has no breakdown by race of the 2010 gubernatorial election. They have it for other races, but not Perry versus White. I’m sure that’s an inadvertent omission in the publication of the crosstabs, but go figure anyway. Once you get past that, the first thing you might notice, if you compare the crosstabs from 2010 to the crosstabs from 2012 for the UT/TT poll is that the racial makeup of each sample is identical, with roughly 65% of the total being Anglo. Henson and Shaw then take the raw totals backstage and do their proprietary statistical mumbo-jumbo on them to produce the result they then write about. That’s the basis (via PDiddie) of RG Ratcliffe’s complaint about Trib polls. But putting that aside, Henson’s own polling shows that Abbott went from a 39-point lead among Anglo voters in 2010 against Barbara Radnofsky to a 25-point lead among Anglo voters in 2014 against Wendy Davis. The drop is smaller in the Governor’s race poll, where Bill White trailed Rick Perry by 30, but that’s still a five point improvement for Wendy Davis. Why isn’t this precipitous drop in support among Anglo voters for Republicans the story? What am I missing here?

By the way, if you do the same math for the Abbott-Radnofsky numbers that I did for the Romney-Obama numbers, Abbott winds up better off – he still leads BAR by a 50.3 to 39.7 mark, which is pretty close to the lead Henson reports Abbott having over Davis, though down quite a bit from the 20-point lead they actually showed him with in 2010. The difference here is due to Abbott being in a near-tie among Hispanic voters with BAR; Rick Perry had the same result against Bill White in that poll. While Henson says Abbott’s favorability numbers among Hispanic voters are trending up he doesn’t say anything about the horserace numbers among Hispanic voters. For reasons I don’t understand, the Trib doesn’t include the crosstabs of their own polls when they report on them. You have to go to Henson and Shaw’s other home, the Texas Politics Project, to find them. Turns out Henson does show Abbott leading Davis 40-36 among Hispanic voters, a result that ought to be even bigger news than the topline but which does even warrant a by-the-way. That isn’t a fluke, either – David Dewhurst leads Leticia Van de Putte 33-31 among Hispanic voters, though poor Dan Patrick trails her by a 35-27 margin. Nobody’s really claiming Hispanic voters went nearly 50-50 for Republicans in 2010, or that they’re set to do the same thing or be even more favorable to them this year. Henson and Shaw certainly aren’t, or surely they would have said so by now. This is an artifact of their very small sample size – 130 Hispanic voters total, for a margin of error of 8.6% – and their odd construct, which is why it attracts so much criticism. Whatever mumbo-jumbo they’re doing behind the scenes, they must be doing a lot of it.

I get that Henson and Shaw are making their best guess about what the electorate will look like in November, just as every pollster ultimately does. They expect that the electorate will tend to favor Greg Abbott, and by God that’s what their results show. But this poll, with its bizarre but completely unmentioned crosstabs, is national news, as is that highly questionable Democratic primary poll. If the goal was to get people talking about this race – especially if the goal was to get people talking to Henson and Shaw about their perception of this race – then this has been a big success. If the goal was to help us understand what’s actually happening in this race, then I’d say there’s still work to be done. But don’t worry, I’m sure their next poll will clear up any lingering questions.

Kirkland v Fleming goes national

Lisa Falkenberg writes the followup column on George Fleming and his repeat attempt to underwrite a campaign challenge to Steven Kirkland that I figured she’d write.

George Fleming

Fleming’s contributions to a political action committee called Moving Texas Forward – $75,000 from him and $10,000 from another of his PACs, according to records – have helped foot the bill for a new wave of attacks that have filled mailboxes, in-boxes and radio waves in recent days. All focus on Kirkland’s old record.

Gray, who according to records has taken $15,000 from Fleming and $35,000 from one of his PACs, hasn’t engaged in the attacks. She released a statement saying, in part: “If any independent groups are saying anything untrue about Steve Kirkland, they should stop immediately.”

But she hasn’t condemned the deceitful nature of the ads. And that’s a mistake, as was taking Fleming’s money with no questions asked.

Kirkland’s DWIs are shameful, no doubt. But the attack ads never mention the dates of the arrests. On the contrary, they make it seem like they happened yesterday.

[…]

Justin Jordan, who works as Gray’s campaign consultant, and has been paid thousands to do advertising by a Fleming PAC that’s supporting Gray, defended the ads.

Asked why a 30-year-old DWI is relevant in a judicial race, Jordan at first hesitated: “I’m not sure. Judge Kirkland made that an issue.”

“How?” I asked.

“He talked about it,” Jordan said. “I think his record is fair game.”

Jordan denied that the ads were misleading, including one mailer featuring scary drunken driving statistics and court documents detailing Kirkland’s conviction, jail sentence and license suspension. The only date provided is one featured prominently, in big type, near the top right: May 2012.

“Whether it was 30 years ago or 30 days, a DWI is a DWI,” Jordan said. “If you have a public record you should defend it. And the only thing we’ve heard from Judge Kirkland’s campaign is whining and crying.”

Jordan’s explanation for the May 2012 reference? It was the date a photo of Kirkland included in the ad was taken. Apparently, it’s more important we know when a random photo of Kirkland was taken in his chambers than when he actually committed the offenses at the heart of the attack ad.

See here and here for the background. Sure, a DWI is relevant in a campaign. So is lying. Kirkland has been honest about his past history with alcohol. Too bad Fleming and Jordan aren’t being honest about their characterization of it. Hope it was worth it to you if you win, Lori Gray.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post picked up the story and added a little bit more to what we already knew, but didn’t provide a fully accurate picture.

In an email to The Huffington Post, Fleming noted that he is a lifelong Democrat who frequently contributes and supports judicial elections in Texas. Like other lawyers, he said, he is invested in ensuring that the most competent judges ended up on the bench.

“I don’t have a vendetta against anyone,” he said. “Our selection in Texas of judicial candidates is an elective system. Like so many others, I participate in that system and have for many years.”

[…]

But if Fleming’s donations are based on merits, there haven’t been many candidates he’s found meritorious. Campaign finance records show that both he and his PAC got involved in just two other races after [the 2012 primary between Kirkland and now-Judge Elaine Palmer]. The first was a state representative campaign.

The second was to support Lori Gray, a lawyer who is currently running against Kirkland in the Democratic primary for a seat on the 113th District Court.

I was a bit suspicious of that “after the 2012 primary” formulation, so I went and did a search by Contributor for both George Fleming and the Texans For Good Leaders PAC. It’s true that the latter has mostly been active since 2012, and has only contributed to one other candidate – State Rep. Richard Raymond – besides Palmer and Gray, though they did contribute $5,000 to the HCDP in 2009. However, Fleming himself does have an extensive history of contributions to mostly Democratic candidates. I searched from January 1, 2000 onward, and he gave quite a bit to the likes of Ellen Cohen, Kristi Thibaut, Susan Criss, and a few Democratic judicial candidates in 2008. He also gave $20K to Friends Of Carole Keeton Strayhorn in 2005, $1,000 to now-Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, and ironically enough $250 to Steven Kirkland in 2011. So much for that. Be that as it may, Fleming’s defense of himself has some merit, but by the same token in a year like this there are far better causes to which to contribute. It also doesn’t mitigate the bad acts of his anti-Kirkland crusade. If you want to be known by the body of your work, it’s best not to have one example of your work stand in stark contrast to everything else you’ve done.

More evidence of Cameron Willingham’s innocence

The scientific evidence against Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three children, has long been discredited. The other piece of evidence used against him at trial was the testimony of a jailhouse informer, who said that Willingham confessed to him. Now that piece of evidence is under attack.

Cameron Todd Willingham’s stepmother and cousin, along with exoneree Michael Morton, joined the Innocence Project on Friday to call on Gov. Rick Perry to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether the state should posthumously pardon Willingham, who was executed in 2004.

“We are forever passionately committed to the mission of clearing Cameron’s name,” said Patricia Cox, Willingham’s cousin.

[…]

The [Innocence Project] says it discovered evidence that indicated the prosecutor who tried Willingham had elicited false testimony from and lobbied for early parole for a jailhouse informant in the case.

The informant, Johnny Webb, told a Corsicana jury in 1992 that Willingham had confessed to setting the blaze that killed his three daughters. The Innocence Project also alleges that the prosecutor withheld Webb’s subsequent recantation. The organization argues that those points, combined with flawed fire science in the case, demand that the state correct and learn from the mistake it made by executing Willingham.

Former Judge John H. Jackson, the Navarro County prosecutor who tried Willingham, said the Innocence Project’s claims were a “complete fabrication” and that he remained certain of Willingham’s guilt.

“I’ve not lost any sleep over it,” Jackson said.

[…]

During the trial, Webb, who was in jail on an aggravated robbery charge, said he was not promised anything in return for testifying. But correspondence records indicate that prosecutors later worked to reduce his time in prison.

In a 1996 letter, Jackson told prison officials Webb’s charge should be recorded as robbery, not aggravated robbery.

But in legal documents signed by Webb in 1992, he admitted to robbing a woman at knife point and agreed to the aggravated robbery charge.

In letters to the parole division in 1996, the prosecutor’s office also urged clemency for Webb, arguing that his 15-year sentence was excessive and that he was in danger from prison gang members because he had testified in the Willingham case.

In 2000, while he was incarcerated for another offense, Webb wrote a motion recanting his testimony, saying the prosecutor and other officials had forced him to lie.

That motion, [Barry] Scheck said, was not seen by Willingham’s lawyers until after the execution. Meanwhile, he said, prosecutors used the testimony to stymie efforts to prove Willingham’s innocence and prevent his death.

An investigation is needed, Scheck said, to improve the judicial process.

I’ve written extensively about the Willingham case. To me, the dismantling of the arson investigator’s evidence is more than enough to convince me that he did not receive a fair trial and very likely would not have been convicted – quite possibly, not even arrested – if valid investigative techniques had been used at the time. Having the non-scientific evidence called into doubt as well – surely there was a failure to disclose, at the least – makes me wonder what anyone might base a continued belief in Willingham’s guilt on. That doesn’t stop Rick Perry from keeping a closed mind about it, of course. Grits, who notes the story here, is clearly correct to say that the best chance for anything to happen with this case begins in 2015, with a new Governor. I personally think the chances are better with one candidate than with the other, but for sure there’s no chance with the current Governor. EoW has more.

Texas Farm Bureau unhappy with anti-immigrant Republicans

It’s an opportunity for Democrats, assuming they actually mean what they’re saying.

When Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Eric Opiela appeared on television sets across Texas recently to declare “No amnesty under any circumstances,” he was no doubt attempting to appeal to the conservative constituency that is expected to turn out in next week’s primary election.

So are his major primary opponents, former state Reps. Sid Miller and Tommy Merritt, and Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes, who oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Current Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor, is also blasting one of his Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Patrick, over reports that he hired undocumented workers and supported amnesty for one of them decades ago.

But all of the candidates also happen to disagree with one of the country’s most powerful agricultural lobbying groups, which boasts some half a million members in Texas. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its local arm, the Texas Farm Bureau, are strong supporters of a major immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed last year that offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has been heavily criticized by many conservative politicians, both nationwide and in Texas, highlighting a rift between the Republican Party and the agricultural lobby that widened recently during debate over the farm bill.

“Let’s just cut to the chase on this thing: Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor that goes on in the state of Texas … is done by either undocumented or illegally documented people,” said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau. “If and when that labor supply is not there, that production simply goes out of business.”

[…]

For Pringle, the Republican Party’s shift to the right in recent years means that the Texas farm lobby may be looking for friends in places that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. In the 2012 election cycle, the Texas Farm Bureau donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Let’s just put it this way,” Pringle said. “We are finding conservative Republicans less and less supportive of agriculture.”

Like I said, a potential opportunity for Democrats to steal a bit of support from some typically unfavorably places, and not just in the Ag Commissioner race. The TFB has endorsed Carnes, but it’s not clear they’d transfer that support to, say, Eric Opiela or Sid Miller if one of them became the nominee. We’ve heard this sort of talk before, from typically pro-Republican business groups that support immigration reform, such as the Texas Association of Business, but it generally doesn’t translate into any tangible action. TAB in particular has a history of getting good press for saying pro-immigrant things and occasionally calling out some of the worst offenders among the Republicans, but they never follow it up by actively opposing the legislators they identify as the problem, even as the rhetoric has gotten more and more strident. If the TFB wants to be seen as more than just an empty voice for immigration reform, the place they can and should start is in the Lt. Governor’s race. If they fail to support Leticia Van de Putte, especially over Dan Patrick or Todd Staples, we’ll know they didn’t intend to be taken seriously. Just walk the walk, fellas, that’s all I’m asking.