- Cynthia Griggs
According to a straw poll released earlier this month by Utah Policy, state Sen. Luz Escamilla is "most likely" SLC's next mayor. "It's not scientific," UP publisher LaVarr Webb says of the survey's methodology.
Spring has sprung. As the days get longer and the temperatures rise, Utahns are swapping their skis for hiking boots. But there's something special about this year's changing of the seasons: a plethora of candidates are vying to be Salt Lake City's next mayor, a wide-open race since sitting Mayor Jackie Biskupski bowed out last month.
Campaigns will gain momentum as we inch closer to the August primary and November municipal elections. Strangers will knock on your door to ask for your support, ads will pepper local airwaves and political pundits and researchers will release polls in an attempt to gauge which candidate jockey will win the horse race.
Those polls are already upon us. The Hinckley Institute of Politics, in conjunction with The Salt Lake Tribune, released their early findings in February, before Biskupski dropped out, listing the incumbent mayor as the second-most likely candidate to win. Jim Dabakis, the outspoken retired state senator with a penchant for publicity stunts, was in first place, and Luz Escamilla, the still-serving Utah lawmaker whose day job is with Zions National Bank, was in third; 43 percent of respondents were undecided. And earlier this month, Utah Policy (UP) released a straw poll that gave "political insiders" and readers a chance to weigh in. It listed Escamilla, Dabakis and Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall as the first, second and third, respectively, most-likely contenders to become the next mayor.
Such polls are helpful for journalists and members of the public in sizing up who's likely to emerge victorious in the crowded field. But beware—not all polls are created equal.
"I don't put much stock in those political insider straw polls," veteran political journalist-turned-Trib-columnist Robert Gehrke says of the UP survey. "I don't think it tells us much about the electorate."
Given the choice, Gehrke says he'd rather use polls he trusts—like his newsroom's—to make his points in his columns, but that isn't always possible. "There's not a lot of polling done in this market, so you use the data points that you have available," he says. "It is something that I've encouraged editors to not rely on it as much because we don't know all the methodology they're using, we don't know their sample and we don't see their crosstabs."
The UP polls rely on a niche sample of political insiders, defined on their website as a "select group of Republican and Democratic politicians, officeholders, lobbyists and activists." UP Publisher LaVarr Webb says his site's survey is not meant to be a representative sample of voters. "It's not scientific," he admits. "I wouldn't even say that it's a true sample of all of the politically engaged people in the state, but of those on the [political insider] list, it reflects their views, and it's different obviously than a random sample, professional kind of a survey."
The Hinckley and Salt Lake Tribune poll, on the other hand, has a more representative sample that better reflects the electorate. According to Associate Director Morgan Lyon Cotti, Hinckley contacted Salt Lake City residents over two weeks through a mix of landlines and cell phones, to ensure they surveyed a wide swath of city dwellers. "This is not a random, 'put your finger in the phonebook,'" Cotti says, underscoring a difference between her organization's methodology and UP's poll. "This is using data from registered voters."
By Webb's own admission, the respondents in UP's survey weren't even all eligible Salt Lake City voters. Instead, they were Republicans, Democrats and Independents from across the state, and some of the roughly 8,000 people who subscribe to the site's newsletter. "It's just something we do for the fun of it," he says.
Another issue is the anonymous comments published at the bottom of UP's polls. Benjamin Whisenant, an assistant professor at the University of Utah's Communications Department who specializes in media law and ethics, warns the statements could allow people working on a candidate's campaign to take a free shot at an opponent. "We have to be able to assess the source to be able to know whether this has bias inherent to it," Whisenant says, "or whether we can view it as something to be trusted, as a sort of unbiased opinion."
Webb says some of the commenters could be campaign staffers. UP wouldn't have added them to the insider's list specifically for the poll, but they could have been surveyed if they were already considered an "insider" by UP's standards.
Then there's the matter of Webb's line of work. He's listed on the state's database as a lobbyist who represents Zions Bank, Escamilla's employer, and he's the founder of The Exoro Group, a public relations firm that works with government entities, political candidates and nonprofits. Webb retired from Exoro in 2014, but he's still listed on the site's homepage as a senior adviser. "They have wanted to list me in case they had something they wanted to bring me in on, but they haven't brought me in on anything," Webb says, adding that he also still has an office there that he can use if he needs it. "I'm still friends with them, but I have no financial ties to them at all."
Zions Bank has been listed as a "major sponsor" in UP polls in the past, but their name is nowhere to be found on the mayoral straw poll. "Zions has been a good supporter and a key sponsor of Utah Policy," Webb explains, but they did not pay for this particular survey. Webb says he did. "Zions didn't even know we were asking the question," Webb says, pointing out that the insider survey is distinct from a scientific, professional survey in that it's more informal and cheaper. "They're easy and simple to send out, so there has been no sponsor for those insider polls," he continues. "There's no outside entity that does that. It's just internally, so there's no connection to anyone ... None of my clients or anyone like that pays for that."
Whisenant says local reporters and editors should be aware of these potential conflicts of interest whenever they mention UP's polls in their stories. "The news outlet should allow a reader to consume a poll with as much transparency as possible," he says.
Real issues can arise from publishing polling results, according to former SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson. Voters might not take lower-ranked candidates seriously, and polls too often affect the final result. "It definitely drives funding because there are a lot of people who will contribute to whoever they think is going to win," he says.
Issues aside, Hinckley's Cotti says UP's straw polls are still interesting because they offer an insider's perspective on who is leading the race. "It is interesting to still get the opinion of these people, because they usually are very well educated about politics, they understand the nuance of name recognition and campaign work and fundraising, and can have a keen eye to see which individuals can be strong candidates," she says. But, with the election months away, it's early. "It's still a game of name-recognition," she adds by way of explaining Hinckley's and UP's poll results.
For his part, Webb cautions against candidates reading too much into his survey results. "People who live by the polls sometimes die by the polls," he says. "You have to take them all with a grain of salt, but I think it's one input into public policy, or the public policy debate, that is worth doing."
Correction 4/17: A previous version of this story included a singular mention of "Utah Politics" instead of Utah Policy.