LaPolitics Newsmaker: Bernie Pinsonat

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Bernie Pinsonat got into polling because he’s good at golf. Or at least that’s the reasoning he offers up. The well-known pollster said former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston gave him his first job in politics—on the green. As a representative for Johnston’s office, Pinsonat travelled the state and worked up an institutional knowledge on Louisiana politics. 

But it was his business partner at Southern Media and Opinion Research, Buster McKenzie, who initiated the company’s first statewide poll. Over time, those surveys became staples of the political landscape, and not just for the data, but also for the questions Pinsonat and McKenzie would insert “just for fun.”

Those questions would sometimes draw the ire of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, an easy target who often rebuked Pinsonat in the media. Rather than beating Pinsonat down, though, Edwards’ attacks actually served to build up the pollster’s own name recognition.

Pinsonat said he gets more enjoyment out of conducting independent opinion polls, like the one SMOR put out last week, but makes his living conducting surveys for campaigns and, primarily, corporations.

LaPolitics: In last week’s poll results, did you ask first about Sen. Landrieu’s job performance, and then the upcoming race?

Pinsonat: We asked about every statewide elected official’s job performance. What you want to look at in there is how we described the candidates. Landrieu draws 41 percent of the vote in a three-way trial heat; Cassidy 34 percent; Maness 10 percent. See that 10 percent? The minute I saw that the first thing I did was, “Woah. Why?” Because, see how these questions are worded? “Bill Cassidy, Republican, medical doctor and a U.S. congressman; Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from New Orleans, incumbent U.S. senator.” What’s wrong with this one? “Rob Maness, a Republican from Madisonville, retired air force officer, endorsed by the tea party.” He shouldn’t have gotten 10 percent, but we mentioned the tea party. What does his name say on the ballot? Rob Maness, Republican, and nothing else. But we described him, and how we described him bumped him up from probably two to 10 percent.

But chronic voters that you’re polling would probably know come election time that Maness was endorsed by the tea party.

Right. Probably. But the further you get away from chronics the less they would. And he needs money to go on TV and say that. Anyway, that extra eight percent would have gone to Cassidy, not Landrieu.

How much does this mean so far out from the election?

This one means a lot. Not so much as the absolute outcome, but to the difficulties facing Landrieu. She’s worked very hard to get where she is. None of the 99 other senators, I would guess, would vote against so much of the state time after time after time. And if her or anyone around her thinks she can get re-elected after that, I don’t believe it. Polling is also demographics. You have to know numbers. She needs about 37 to 41 percent of the white community depending on turnout differential to get reelected. She’s not even close. She has 24 percent in this poll. That’s something as a pollster you know. As a candidate, she knows it, too.

Can she turn it around?

Obamacare isn’t going to get better. She voted for the stimulus. Vote after vote after vote after vote she’s voted with Obama and with Harry Reid. As I said, she’s not in control of her destiny. It’s about the Republicans doing something that turns off voters.

A group that supports the flood protection authority lawsuit recently commissioned a poll that reported a more favorable response than the one in your poll.

That generally happens. But I know something about Louisiana, and I’ll be glad to run a poll anytime they want. This state is anti-trial lawyer. There should be no poll in the history of Louisiana that shows whites like anything about trial lawyers, and if you leave out that this is benefiting trial lawyers, why wouldn’t they say yes? But business owners are fearful of the guy next door being sued. It might be his neighbor, but tomorrow it’ll be him.

Why is polling important to elections?

The poll is your direction. It tells you how you’re doing, how your opponent is doing, it tells you the best approach to take related to the message and style of campaign you’re going to run. You could say it’s the blueprint for the campaign. Everything from the campaign emanates from that. The guy who is doing the media spends a lot of money, in a lot of cases millions, and how he spends that money is based on the poll. Polling for a campaign is the benchmark and foundation from which the campaign will grow.

Have you ever had a candidate not believe the results of a poll?

Oh yeah. A lot of them are surprised. Take someone, a politician, who is in the news sometimes or a lot—they’re surprised when a poll shows people statewide, or even in their parish, don’t know them. They can be surprised on what position voters take, and are disappointed when it’s not the issue they want to campaign on, that it’s not that big of a deal to the voter. It educates them and in some cases frustrates them. Sometimes they have to rethink their approach to the campaign.

What do you think about when you structure a question that will go into a poll?

A lot of people say it’s how you ask the question. There’s always the possibility, that you could lead the respondent. You can look at the answers to questions to check the validity of a poll. Were Republicans 100 percent for this, and maybe they shouldn’t have been? We know how various groups feel. You can look and see that doesn’t make sense. Did I structure this so that they wanted to say yes? That’s not what you want. You want people to come away with the right information. If not, you’re doing your client and yourself a disservice. In the polling business, it’s not that difficult for someone to come behind us and show how bogus our answer is. You can ruin your reputation because you can’t convince the public that you won’t do that again. You have people that pay for these types of polls. These polls aren’t usually from in-state, and you see a lot of automated polling from those groups.

What’s the difference between automated and in-person polling?

We actually talk to the person. We’re asking them questions. We know who we’re talking to. We’re talking to a human being. With automated, they’re just punching in. You can’t ask a lot of questions because you can only touch in your response. You don’t know if you’re talking to a child or a registered voter. We tend to use voting lists. We’re calling households that we know has voters in it.

Are polls moving away from households and toward cellphones?

It’s more expensive. The FCC made it very difficult to call cellphone users because of data mining. We can call them; it just can’t be automated. In Louisiana, especially in some of the coastal parishes, these people don’t have landlines anymore. If you leave out all of those people, if we say that’s how Terrebonne Parish feels, but they left out 30 percent of the population, it’s not accurate as a survey.

What makes a good person to poll?

I don’t know how anyone in Louisiana votes, but I know every time they’ve voted. I’m looking for people that vote. If I call 10 people and it’s dead even, five for candidate “X” and five for candidate “Y.” But two of candidate “Y’s” voters aren’t likely voters, so they aren’t going to vote. So Bernie Pinsonat stands out there and says it’s dead even, but come election day, candidate “Y’s” voters don’t vote, and candidate “X” stomps him, and I look stupid. Polls depend on who you call. We’re looking for people that voted on five out of the last five elections, chronic voters.

Are chronic voters, people that tend to vote a lot? Do they also tend to vote a certain way?

People wonder that. If 50 percent of the poll is 50 years and older, they tend to be more conservative, more Republican. But that’s who votes. What do you want me to do? Call the people that aren’t voting?

Can you test negative statements about a candidate without it being a push poll?

Yes, it’s actually part of it. With companies for example, if Exxon has a spill and we want to see if that affected the public’s perception of them, we don’t say, “Did you know Exxon had this spill?” first, then, “How do you feel about Exxon?” Obviously, it’s going to influence that answer. That’s a push poll. We stay away from push polls in a campaign, but you can still ask push questions to see how things that we know are going to come out are going to affect the race, to see how the candidate should deal with it. You have to expose how you did the poll. If you come to us as a candidate and you do it, we’re not going to lie for you.

Would you describe your desk as neat, messy, or somewhere in between?

If you had come here yesterday you may not have called it as clean. I can’t work with stacks and stacks of things. I like gadgets, my computer. I’m up on the latest phone. There’s every paper from the last session here.

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