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‘Complete bulls***’: Kansas Democrats scrutinize internal polling offered to House candidates

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Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector
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Michael McGraw provided Democratic House candidates like Kim Zito with polling through his firm, Triantan Partners. Kansas Democrats advised candidates to ignore his work

Michael McGraw, campaign manager for Treasurer Lynn Rogers, provided live caller polls of 500 people for $500

‘Complete bulls***’: Kansas Democrats scrutinize internal polling offered to House candidates

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector
November 18, 2022

TOPEKA — Three weeks before Election Day, Kim Zito received internal polling and analysis of voters in her House district that could help her focus campaign efforts in the closing days of a tight race.

Zito, a Democrat running for state office for the first time, viewed the assistance as a gesture of faith and goodwill from Michael McGraw, an East Coast political consultant who was running Treasurer Lynn Rogers’ campaign. She agreed to pay $500 to McGraw’s firm — a significant bargain for a poll based on live calls to 500 residents in her Riley County district.

The polling provided insight into the way men and women of different political affiliations felt about Zito and her opponent, incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Dodson. But her campaign team wasn’t impressed with this information.

“In the thick of it, as a first-time candidate, not knowing what I’m doing, I didn’t have a benchmark to compare what I’m doing to past campaigns,” Zito said. “I thought it was helpful, but then to hear others in the know say, ‘Of course, Kim. You’re a minority woman who’s a registered Democrat. Of course you’re polling behind Republican men.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Yeah.’ ”

Democrats scrutinized McGraw’s polling and advised other candidates to ignore it. They questioned the merits of surveying small House districts, the volume of responses, and results that indicated, among other things, that voters were more supportive of Rogers than Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Levi Henry, a political consultant who worked on Zito’s campaign, offered a blunt assessment of whether the polling had merit.

“F*** no. Absolutely not,” Henry said. “Complete bulls***. You can quote me.”

The polling showed Dodson leading Zito by eight percentage points in a race he eventually won by about 400 votes.

McGraw defended his polling, which defies the norms for response rates, sample sizes and weighting. In an interview for this story, he explained that he works with a crack team of trained professionals and that the lack of polling in Kansas makes the state unique. Here, he said, voters want to tell you what they think.

“There’s kind of an excitement factor when someone gets a phone call and there’s a live person going, ‘Hey, can I talk to you about the election?’ They’re like, ‘Somebody’s letting me tell them what I think.’ So it was a lot easier to get a response rate,” McGraw said.

Kansas Reflector obtained copies of polling and analysis McGraw provided to Zito and two other Democratic candidates, Courtney Tripp and Rep. Heather Meyer. McGraw said he polled 500 people in each of eight House districts as part of a larger statewide poll for Rogers.

Zito is the only candidate who paid for the poll.

“Word got around that juice wasn’t worth the squeeze,” Henry said.

The polling from McGraw’s firm, Virginia-based Triantan Partners, asked voters about the same issues in every district: job security, affordable housing, special education funding, health care, recreational marijuana, and women’s rights.

McGraw concluded his analysis of every race with the same advice. He said Democrats should tell voters: “Republicans sold out everyday Kansans to focus on their party agenda — they lost and you got left behind.”

Campaign finance reports show Rogers’ campaign paid Triantan more than $10,000 for services between June 21 and Oct. 13. That includes a $2,350 expense for polling in June. The documents provided to House candidates were for polling conducted between Sept. 22 and Oct. 3.

In Tripp’s new Johnson County district, the poll showed 52% of voters favored Rogers in the treasurer’s race. Just 45% of voters favored Kelly for governor. Kelly actually won 59% of Johnson County votes, while Rogers received 50% in the Democratic stronghold.

Republican state Rep. Steven Johnson beat Rogers by a 54-41 margin in statewide results.

Democrats were suspicious of the poll’s favorable treatment of Rogers, who had served as Kelly’s lieutenant governor before she appointed him to the treasurer’s office in January 2021.

Other aspects of the polling raised red flags, including the wording of questions.

“I discourage state House candidates from partaking in polls,” said Alexis Simmons, spokeswoman for House Democrats. “Their money should go to direct voter contact. It’s not something the leadership office would authorize as a necessary expense.”

A poll of 500 people in a district where about 10,000 people show up to vote would be extraordinary. For comparison, Emerson College polls of the governor’s race in Kansas relied on 1,000 respondents statewide.

Quality polling with live callers typically costs tens of thousands of dollars. McGraw said he offered the results for $500 because he only asked a couple of questions that were specific to the House races.

Voters in Zito’s district were asked if they think Dodson has done a good job. The available answers were yes, no, or “I don’t know what Dodson is doing in the Legislature.”

Each poll provided responses from precisely 500 people, and included those who said they don’t intend to vote. The report provided raw data, rather than responses weighted to match the demographics of the district — a critical factor in a poll’s reliability.

“I would never purchase a poll of a Kansas state House race. Period,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who specializes in surveys and research. “Knowing what I know, it would be a waste of money for me as a I client, and I would be very suspicious of any consultant trying to sell me that product.”

Miller said weighting always produces a better poll because certain groups are disproportionately unlikely to answer a survey. But that kind of mathematical calculation can’t be made in a House district because there isn’t enough credible, in-depth data on the electorate in 1/125th of the state’s population.

“And the flip side of that is that the data should always be weighted,” Miller said. “I don’t want the raw data either, because I know that raw data are not necessarily representative.”

Tripp said she didn’t receive or look at the polling report that McGraw prepared for her. Her district was created through redistricting earlier this year, so she looked at things like past school bond votes for data.

“I ended up getting so focused on trying to run a strong ground team and getting to as many physical doors as possible,” Tripp said.

She ended up losing by four percentage points to Republican Adam Turk. McGraw’s poll showed she was down by seven points with about eight percent undecided.

Meyer, who defeated Republican David Soffer by 14 percentage points in her Johnson County district, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment for this story. McGraw’s poll showed her up by 11 points.

McGraw said he offered his services to Democratic candidates as part of an effort to help down-ballot campaigns that were left behind by party leaders. He said he wanted to “bring some actual data into the conversation” to help candidates figure out where to put their time and energy.

McGraw said his ability to reach 500 voters in a small area was a result of his “large-scale contact and polling operation that has been around for years.”

The way McGraw sees it, weighted results are an attempt to game the system.

“Our philosophy was very simple: You ask the question, the voters give you an answer, and you write it down,” McGraw said.

Zito said the Rogers campaign was supportive and helpful to her. She felt “pretty naive” after talking to others about the poll, but she felt no ill will toward McGraw or Rogers.

“In the grand scheme of things, whether I got robbed or whether I got a really good deal, I don’t know,” Zito said.

“These are all things that as a candidate I learn, and if I run again, I’ll know on the day that I file I will be polling behind Republican men,” she added.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.