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Putting the [R] in [R]asmussen?

ThinkProgress has discovered, by way of a cool new invention known as The Internet, that Scott Rasmussen has in fact been conducing polling on behalf of partisan clients, in particular the RNC and the Bush re-election campaign, both during 2003-04.

This appears to contradict all but the most absurdly lawyerly readings of a statement on Rasmussen Reports’ website, which reads: “Scott [Rasmussen] maintains his independence and has never been a campaign pollster or consultant for candidates seeking office.” The statement was also repeated word-for-word in a Politico article without any qualification.

OK, so we’ll score this The Internet 1, Politico’s fact-checking department 0, and Rasmussen a negative something for posting a blatantly misleading statement on their website.

Here’s an interesting question: Should organizations like and Real Clear Politics, each of which put an (R) or a (D) by the name of pollsters whom they consider to be “partisan affiliated”, put an (R) designation by Rasmussen Reports?

Well, I can’t really answer that question, because I don’t know exactly how they define “partisan affiliated”. Still, I think some nuance is in order. In particular, it’s probably useful to distinguish between Scott Rasmussen himself and Rasmussen Reports. The polling industry is fairly incestuous; people may be partners in some firms, consultants to others, and may conduct further polling on behalf of themselves as a sole proprietorship or another entity like an S-Corp created for tax purposes. And these relationships may change over time. In this case, the polling for Bush and the RNC was conducted on behalf of “Scott Rasmussen Inc”, which I’d surmise is Scott’s personal business and is separate from Rasmussen Reports itself.

Does that matter? It emphatically does not excuse the statement on Rasmussen Reports’ website, which is specifically applied not just to Rasmussen Reports but also to Scott Rasmussen himself. But, if RCP and Pollster were to place an (R) or a (D) by the name of any polling firm who had any partner who had ever conducted polling on behalf of partisan clients, there wouldn’t be too many pollsters left who went without a partisan designation.

I suspect that the working definition that RCP and Pollster use is closer to “a firm that actively solicits polling business on behalf of clients from one party”. Rasmussen Reports currently is not doing this. In fact, they state on their website that “because we value our independence and credibility, Rasmussen Reports cannot be hired to conduct a poll for anyone” (although Rasmussen Reports left the line blurrier several years ago, and I don’t know if the prohibition on for-hire polling applies to Scott Rasmussen himself.)

Personally, I don’t think you get very far looking at who conducted the poll — instead, I prefer to look at who paid for it. If a “partisan” polling firm like Democracy Corps or Public Opinion Strategies issues a poll under their own name (or on behalf of a media client), I wouldn’t consider that to be a partisan poll and would list it in my averages. Likewise, if a non-partisan pollster like Gallup were to issue a poll on behalf of Charlie Crist, I would consider that a partisan poll and wouldn’t include it. As our FAQ states:

A poll is excluded if it was conducted by any current candidate for office, a registered campaign committee, a Political Action Committee, or a 527 group, unless (i) the poll has a bipartisan partner (partisan polling groups will sometimes pair with one another to reduce the perception of bias), or (ii) the organization has a long and demonstrable track record of releasing all its data to the public.

Polls are not excluded simply because the pollster has conducted work on behalf of Republican or Democratic candidates.

I don’t want to pretend this is a perfect definition, but it does draw a fairly bright line. This applies, by the way, specifically to the polls we include in our statistical models (the 2010 model should debut sometime in late spring). I apply a bit more discretion to what polls I might choose or choose not to highlight in narrative pieces, although I think you’ll find I generally apply the same principle. If the organization that paid for a poll has some skin in the game, I’ll usually ignore it — or if I do talk about it, I’ll probably talk about it in a disparaging fashion.

Right now, Rasmussen Reports is branding themselves essentially as media organization. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt here, in no small part because that’s how I tend to brand FiveThirtyEight as well. I don’t buy that a media organization won’t, can’t, or shouldn’t have a “point of view”; FiveThirtyEight has a point of view, i.e. that of me and our other writers. I also don’t buy that a “point of view” automatically equals “bias”.

But I do believe in open disclosure, both as a branding and an ethical matter. That’s why I tell you in the FAQ who I voted for (Barack Obama). I have never conducting polling or paid consulting on behalf of a political client, nor am I actively (or even passively, for the time being) soliciting such business. I have conducted consulting and polling on behalf non-political clients, and I have also advised political clients on an informal, unpaid basis. FiveThirtyEight is independently owned and operated.

Any of that could change — in which case, we’ll just have to tell you about it. As for Rasmussen, I’m not going to tell them how to run their business.

EDIT: Interestingly, Rasmussen Reports has also conducted at least one poll, in 2005, for a liberal-leaning group.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.