Hugh Reynolds: Do be careful with poll numbers

Politics being a game of deliberate deception, I strongly advise readers to take the many political polls that will be issued this year with a pillar of salt.

The worst American poll in history, from a fairly mature industry at the time, was the calling of New York governor Tom Dewey winner over Harry Truman in 1948. The second worst had to be the pollsters who gave Donald Trump “no path” to the White House late election night 2016.

As a young reporter, I took a course on “scientific polling” from political science professor Gerald Benjamin at SUNY New Paltz. Dr. Benjamin explained to us how polling a limited number of representative would-be voters — usually about 1,000 — could project how the electorate might vote. Ever the research wonk, Benjamin offered numerous examples, including, of course, the Truman fiasco. The professor was careful to advise that, however sophisticated they were, polls were only educated guesses, with a margin of error of 3 or 4 percent. Many an election has been lost by less.


I was almost convinced that modern polling could with rare exceptions predict the outcome of elections. It was like having a crystal ball.

As with newspapers, credibility in polling is critical. If you miss a few predictions, your business will go south. Moreover, viewers (and potential customers) need assurance that the polls they’re reading are fair and objective. “Scientific” is supposed to cover all that.

If pollsters rigged their results, who would believe their next one?

I still think polling — like tracking trends — has value. But these days I’m less a believer.

An early 2016 November poll taken by a Raleigh, N.C. polling firm called Public Policy Polling gave me pause. The polling firm’s press release said it robo-called 506 people in New York’s 19th Congressional District on Nov. 9 and 10, beginning about 48 hours after the off-year elections. Even with a stated margin of error of 4.4 percent, plus or minus, its findings made me sit upright. (I had been reading the release in the water closet of inspiration.)

The poll, which covered a few “vulnerable” Republican incumbents in New York and Texas, had freshman John Faso at a 31 percent approval rating and a 51 percent disapproval rate. This was the guy who won the election with 54 percent (a 26,000-vote plurality) less than a year ago.

Curiosity piqued, I attempted to reach the polling firm for more specifics via the 888 number it had included in the press release. I called four times and left messages. No return. Further research via Wikipedia (reasonably reliable) described Public Policy Polling as “a Democratic firm.” Ah. Presumably, there are Republican alternatives.

We run the risk of being spun by pollsters from both sides of the aisle. I advise viewer discretion.

Party business

Late last month, among mind-numbing hoopla over federal tax reform, Russian espionage and the like, the Ulster County Legislature quietly re-elected most of its leadership. Even with an influx of eight new legislators (including two returnees), there was almost no change. Ho, ho, ho has given way to ho-hum.

Republican Ken Ronk of Wallkill will be back for a two-year term as chairman, with Mary Beth Maio of Lloyd returning as majority leader. Jim Maloney of Ulster serves as vice-chairman. Democratic minority leader Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz was “unanimously” re-elected, according to Rodriguez.

Nothing against the loquacious legislator, but Democrats love few things more than a good party fight and there were at least two or three other worthies whispering into phones late last month. Obviously, Rodriguez had the votes going in. Perhaps the compromise was the election of Jonathan Heppner of Woodstock as No. 2, Democratic Party whip, to replace the defeated Pete Loughran of Kingston. At 29, the two-term Heppner is a rising star. I predict he will be chairman some day and assemblyman before he turns 40 unless incumbent Democrat Kevin Cahill, 62, decides to do a Bill Larkin and run into his 90s. Come to think of it, Larkin, a Town of Newburgh assemblyman, was 63 when first elected to the state Senate in 1990.

Who’s crazy now?

If doing what you’ve been doing and expecting different results is a definition of insanity, well, then, these legislators are just crazy about the jobs they’ve been doing as the so-called “co-equal” branch of county government. Democrats seem to like Hector’s world view, which is the belief that no county is an island. First step will be an attempt to reverse a Republican ban on so-called memorializing resolutions. All they’ll need is one more vote from the 12-11 GOP majority, opening the gates for much smoke but little fire.

Ronk’s Republicans are easy with what Ronk calls their “cooperative relationship” with Democratic County Executive Mike Hein. If the majority and the executive have differences, says Ronk, they’re discussed behind closed doors, despite the thought that the public might have an interest in the pros and cons of public policy.

In politics, I guess, doing what you’ve been doing and getting the results you want makes sense. Ronk, like Heppner, is a young politician on the make. Already a step ahead of his would-be competitor, known as an independent Republican might play than Me Too when they clash at some future encounter.

If there’s a flash point between the legislature and the executive, it will occur at the Family Court construction site at the former Business Resource Center on Ulster Avenue. Ronk appointed a special oversight committee late fall which did little more than observe passing events from a distance. Nobody from the seven-member committee even bothered to attend bid openings for the $10 million project last October.

There is little doubt this project will come in on time next August. Hein has established a reputation for meeting his deadlines, and woe the administration project manager who falls behind. As Hein has demonstrated a talent for mixing and matching in-house and private contractor duties (all perfectly legal), accurate assessment of costs via an oversight committee could be an entirely different matter.

Saugerties rising

There was a huge turnout at swearing-in ceremonies for Town of Saugerties officials on New Year’s Day. Similar ceremonies took place elsewhere around the region, but not in Kingston. Inauguration day was a century-long tradition in the county seat until former mayor T.R. Gallo opted out in the late 1990s. Word around City Hall was the young party-boy mayor barely made it to his own first inaugural on New Year’s Day.

While election results have been certified for weeks, there was some suspense surrounding Saugerties festivities. Who would the town board pick to fill the vacancy on the board with Councilman Fred Costello Jr. moving up to supervisor?

Six candidates threw their hats in the ring. These kinds of elections are often called “beauty contests” — more about popularity than experience. As such, former legislator Chris Allen would have won the swimsuit competition. Miss Congeniality would have gone to Jamie Fine, a former candidate for town board. But the town board liked former IBMer Mike MacIsaac best of all. Big Mack just missed winning a seat in the legislature last fall. He brings computer skills to a board bent on wiring the town.


In other action

New Paltz brings back much the same team of Democrats, with the usual focus of better relations between town and village. Of some note is the division of sales-tax receipts between the two municipalities. It’s a small amount, about $250,000 a year, traditionally divided by population. Village and town officials will meet in joint session next week to discuss retaining that three-to-one ratio. There’s no hope of squeezing more from the county.

Marbletown Supervisor Rich Parete actually found his way to town hall for his first inaugural, and on time. A former seven-term county legislator, Parete had a habit of drifting in after roll call. I predict Parete, a wrestler, will get a grip on things right soon even if election bitterness lingers.

Parete brings experience as a legislator to town government from having been involved in implementing a March 2016 agreement to supply water to SUNY Ulster from the High Falls water district. Alas, the ball is in the county’s court, and Parete burned a few bridges before he left.

Esopus Supervisor Shannon Harris is calling for economic development in her first term. There are many calls for economic development in this county, but few answers. Let’s see what Harris can do.

“Welcome to another day in hell” was our drill instructor’s cheery greeting at dawn in Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill. I thought I was back in hell when I read the daily’s year in review last week. It seems we live in a county rife with crime, drugs, calamity and mayhem. While I don’t subscribe to the boosteristic “progress” editions certain papers put out around New Year’s, I doubt whether any agency hustling economic development shows that edition to would-be prospects.

And finally, condolences to the family of former county budget officer J.J. Hanson on his passing from brain cancer last month. Hanson, a combat Marine Corps officer in Iraq, was one of those bright young people Mike Hein recruited for his first term. He resigned for a job in the private sector a few years later. Hanson, 36, was throughout his illness an advocate for public awareness of his rare disease. He leaves a wife and two pre-school children.