Selected Oregonians this week got a "straw ballot"
on Measures 66 and 67, two income tax hikes on the January ballot, from a Salem outfit calling itself "The Nelson Report."
Like an earlier mailer
purporting to come from a struggling Tillamook dairy farmer, the Nelson Report straw poll requires some explanation.
First, although the name "The Nelson Report" might sound like a generic information gathering service, it is actually an affiliate of Public Affairs Counsel
, the Salem lobbying shop run by Mark Nelson.
Political campaigns of any size usually conduct polling to test public knowledge and the strengths and weakness of a message. Normally, says Portland pollster Mike Riley, campaigns hire independent pollsters so the campaign manager and the pollster have an arm's length relationship.
"Traditionally, a poll is conducted by somebody not connected to the campaign," Riley says.
Not so with the campaign against the January tax measures, which Nelson is managing.
And unlike standard political polls, in which respondents are randomly selected, The Nelson Report chooses from whom it gets information. "THE NELSON REPORT has selected YOU as a representative of the average voter to mark this SECRET STRAW BALLOT," reads the mailer.
"The definition of a scientific poll is that it's random by design," Riley says.
The language in the mailer is not exactly neutral, either. "The method used in conducting this poll is designed to gauge the political opinion of the actual voter, as distinguished from professional politicians," the introduction to the poll says.
"[That] is not an antiseptic introduction," says Portland pollster Lisa Grove, who is working as a contractor to the pro-tax campaign. "It is used to elicit anti-government emotions prior to asking about a tax increase."
Finally, the "Dear Voter" document provides information, which —while perhaps true— is also misleading:
"THE NELSON REPORT does not advocate the support of any candidate, nor does it advance the affirmative or negative side of any measure."
Grove says that statement is "horribly disingenuous."
"Suggesting you are a neutral third party could get you sanctioned by the American Association for Public Opinion Research," Grove adds. "An omission might be acceptable but not a lie."
That disclaimer is a distinction without a difference. If the "The Nelson Report" were an independent company, it would be registered with the Secretary of State. It is not. Nor has it billed the campaign for services, which suggests that the cost of the poll is included in Nelson's other bills.
Regardless of the outcome, the campaign is a productive use of Nelson's considerable talents. Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes
has paid his firm, Public Affairs Counsel, $177,000 so far. And the anti-tax group has paid another Nelson firm, Public Direct, $302,000 so far for campaign literature. That means Nelson has raked in more than 20 percent of the $2.1 million —$479,000— the campaign has spent thus far.
"I and others would have had like to have a crack at the polling for the [No] campaigns," Riley says. But Mark likes the way he does research and when you hire him, that's part of the deal."
And Riley adds that Nelson's approach, while unconventional, has stood the test of time.
"Nelson's been using this format for decades," Riley says. "He's generally credited with producing empirically accurate data, despite a less than purely scientific approach. Scientific or not, he's been successful with his methods."
Nelson was not immediately available for comment.
(photo credit: State of Oregon)