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How Research 2000 Could Make Its Life Easy

The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) has a commonsensical suggestion for Research 2000:

The National Council on Public Polls is calling for full disclosure of all information about the polls conducted by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos website after controversy erupted over the polls.[…]

“NCPP believes public disclosure of all the relevant information about the polls in dispute will provide a solid basis for resolving this controversy,” said Evans Witt, NCPP President. He said the release by Research 2000 and Daily Kos should include all the information detailed in the three levels of NCPP guidelines, including the interview data and full sample dispositions.

“Releasing this information will allow everyone to make a judgment based on the facts,” Witt added. “Failure to release information leaves allegations unanswered and unanswerable.”

Emphasis is mine. What NCPP has suggested that Research 2000 do is to release the raw records from each of the individual interviews that it conducted. This would typically take the form of a simple spreadsheet that might look something like this, with codes to indicate each possible response (e.g. 1=Democrat, 2=Republican, 3=independent) to each question:

It would be very, very commonplace to have a document like this — it is in essence the DNA of a poll, and any call center would provide it as a matter of course. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Research 2000 could have lived without it, as the weighting schemes that pollsters typically use usually operate at the level of the individual observations.

Particularly if the data release occurred as soon as possible, and was as comprehensive as possible, Mr. Ali would be entitled to a strong intellectual (rather than merely legal) presumption of innocence. In addition, the spreadsheet could presumably contain the weights Ali assigned to individual observations, which would help to explain why Research 2000 has produced results that are unusual, even if they are not fraudulent.

But so far, Research 2000 has not made such documentation available, certainly not to the public, nor apparently to its client, Daily Kos, in spite of having had two weeks of warning that Daily Kos was about to publish a study that called the propriety of their polling into question. Perhaps he will take the opportunity to do so now.

Horeover, although it would not be easy to fabricate or reverse-engineer such data, a sufficiently cunning and unscrupulous person could presumably do so, given enough time. Just as the Iranian government, in its disputed 2009 election, aroused suspicion in the way that it quickly released province-level results, but city-level results only after a delay, and precinct-level results only after a further delay, if there is an extended delay before Ali releases such data, any subsequent attempt he makes to do so might be regarded more skeptically.

Another form of proof that Ali could offer would be records, such as invoices, from the call center(s) that he used to conduct his polling. Research 2000, which lists only a post office box as its contact information, almost certainly does not have its own call center (nor do most pollsters, for that matter). Instead, it would contract out with a third party to conduct the fieldwork, and in turn add its value by applying its judgment about how to conduct weighting and apply likely voter models, by designing the survey instrument, by being a liaison to the media sponsors of the polls, and so forth. The volume of business between Research 2000 and its call center would presumably be extremely high. If the call center could conduct interviews for Research 2000 at a rate of $5 per completed survey — and that’s probably a very aggressive rate for traditional, non-automated telephone polling — it would be doing about $12,000 worth of business with Research 2000 per week, assuming a 1,200-person national survey and two 600-person state surveys, as is fairly typical for them. That would amount to more than $600,000 worth of business per year, which surely would have produced a long paper trail.

Of course, Ali is under no obligation to release any more information than he feels like — and under the threat of a lawsuit, it is perhaps understandable that he does not want to be more forthcoming. But a key factor here, again, is that the threat of a lawsuit was not made against Ali immediately. On the contrary, Daily Kos claims to have given him two weeks notice about the Grebner and Weissman report in advance of its publication. It is hard to understand why Ali would not have taken that time to provide Daily Kos with information that a pollster would ordinarily have at its fingertips and which presumably could have cleared his name.

None of this, certainly, proves guilt, and I still think there’s modestly more ambiguity here than in the Strategic Vision case. But presuming he is innocent, Ali could be doing a lot of things to make his life easier.

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