A January 11 InsiderAdvantage poll sponsored by the conservative magazine Newsmax showed a tight race for the South Carolina primary, with Mitt Romney holding a two-point lead over Newt Gingrich.
It was the closest Gingrich has come in any of the ten South Carolina polls this year, but that outlier status didn’t bother pollster Matt Towery.
Gingrich campaign manager Michael Krull promptly celebrated the result.
“The InsiderAdvantage poll released today showed Speaker Gingrich in a statistical tie for first place in South Carolina! This is a great sign that our strategy is working: by highlighting Newt's conservative credentials and focusing on Obama's failed policies, we're able to clearly show who the next President should be,” he wrote in a fundraising email.
To rival campaigns and rival pollsters, the survey crystallized everything that’s wrong with the crowded, opaque, and influential new world of campaign polling which -- though treated as science -- is also a kind of dark art, with decisions about sampling, methods, and weighting that naturally affect a poll's outcome. In this particular case, the poll's sponsor, Newsmax, had aired ads in support of Gingrich. The pollster, Towery, is an old Gingrich ally who had been Gingrich’s campaign chairman when he was Speaker of the House.
“Having known Newt since I was 19, serving as a youthful debate advisor in 1980, a lawyer in recount elections, his campaign chairman from 1992 until he resigned from office and a client of his consulting group in his early years in business, I cover virtually every aspect of his adult life,” Towery wrote in a recent Town Hall column. “I've known his daughters, his wives and his closest friends for nearly 32 years.”
Towery’s polls, too,have consistently pulled toward Gingrich. Only two of the eight post-Christmas Iowa surveys, for instance, scored Gingrich better than 14%, and both were from Insider Advantage. One put him at 17%, the other at 16%.
Towery is a colorful figure in Georgia politics, a former state legislator and his party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 1990 who now an online political tip-sheet and works as a consultant for the law-and-lobbying firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. He’s been involved in the occasional political scrap, and the online biography at his firm says that “Mr. Towery is the recipient of the "John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award," for which he was nominated by Dr. Andrew Young and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.” He is not listed as a winner on the Kennedy Library site, and his own website said he was just “nominated” for the award, for his work to free a young man from jail.
Towery’s work has been the subject of intermittent questions from other pollsters. Huffington Post’s Mark Blumenthal, for instance, criticized the firm for failing to disclose how it makes the calls and how it sorts its data. The forecasting blog Margin of Error has also raised questions about the data. But the Georgia-based pollster dismissed any suggestion he puts a thumb on the scale for his old friend.
“The numbers are what they are and sometimes he likes me and sometimes he does not! But this is my job,” he said in an email to BuzzFeed. “Any suggestion that I poll favorably towards him would be untrue.”