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Leo F.J. Wilking, Published November 10 2012

Letter: Forum should concede poll was flawed

If a newspaper has integrity and values the trust of its readers, it must admit its mistakes – especially when they have the potential to shape events rather than merely report on them. Notwithstanding its gracious editorial on Nov. 7 congratulating Heidi Heitkamp on her victory in the U.S. Senate race, The Forum owes its readers an apology for the poll it published on Oct. 20 that purportedly showed Heitkamp trailing Berg by 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent.

That the poll was clearly an “outlier” is demonstrated by the results of three other polls conducted in roughly the same time period. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted Oct. 3-5 had Heitkamp tied with Berg, 47 percent each. Rasmussen is a polling firm that most observers believe tends to exaggerate support for the Republican candidates, yet its poll conducted Oct. 17-18 had Berg up by only five points, 50 percent to 45 percent. A second Mason-Dixon poll, which was in the field on Oct. 26-28, showed Berg with a narrow lead of only two points, 47 percent to 45 percent.

When the Heitkamp campaign criticized the methodology used by Essman Research, the Iowa firm that was hired by The Forum to survey the major races and ballot questions, The Forum rushed to its defense. In an op-ed piece published Oct. 27, Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski labeled the criticisms of the Heitkamp and Pam Gulleson campaigns “intellectually dishonest” and “crooked” and said they had “called on their hired guns to shoot down a professionally done poll they did not like.” But while Zaleski defended The Forum’s polls as “good” based on “sound methodology,” he also left himself some protective cover, suggesting the polls were not a predictor of the election outcome because they were merely a “snapshot” and “a close race can shift after a single debate, a blitz of TV ads or a stumble by the candidate.”

With all due respect, that fig leaf doesn’t work in this case. There was no noteworthy change in advertising strategy, no “stumble” by either of the candidates in the last month of the Heitkamp-Berg contest. The race was essentially tied after Labor Day, or Berg’s lead was within the poll’s margin of error. To proclaim in bold headlines on Oct. 20 that Heitkamp was trailing Berg by 10 points was a disservice to the campaigns and The Forum’s readers.

Instead of attacking critics of its polling firm, whose website boasts expertise in “market analysis” and “brand development” but not political polling, The Forum should admit its mistake and look for another polling firm before the 2014 election.

Wilking is a Fargo attorney.