Poll Positions

Save 81

Save 81’s questionable polling methods reveal precious few answers.

Nearly two months after releasing a poll supporting members’ opinions about the fate of Interstate 81 in downtown Syracuse, none of the key players involved with the advocacy group Save 81 will tell the Syracuse New Times much about how the survey was conducted, who conducted it or who paid for it.

Just before a large public meeting held by the State Department of Transportation on Nov. 13, the recently formed Save 81 coalition unveiled a poll which it says proved that 55 percent of “likely voters” in Onondaga County oppose putting a boulevard in place of the elevated highway running through Syracuse; while only 18 percent favored the boulevard.

Save 81

The I-81 Challenge. Michael Davis photo.

The wording of the question, according to a news release issued at the time, was: “Thinking about the part of I-81 that runs through the City of Syracuse, do you think your area would be better served if I-81 was maintained in its present form or would you prefer if it was replaced with a tunnel or replaced with a six-lane boulevard?”

Save 81

Mark Nicotra
(photo: Town of Salina website)

The news release identified Salina Town Supervisor Mark Nicotra as the spokesperson for the group. Nicotra says that he has no further information about how the poll was conducted.

In a phone interview, Nicotra was asked if he had seen a copy of the pollster’s report or had information about who paid for it. He then asked that these questions be submitted via email. He has not responded.

AnnMarie Taliercio–head of the the CNY Area Labor Federation, the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and a prominent Save 81 member–said she had not seen a report on the poll and had no further information. Taliercio said that she did not know who had conducted the poll, nor who had paid for it. She suggested that fellow Save 81 member Tony Mangano, owner of several hotels along the I-81 corridor, would know more about it.

Mangano said he knew who had paid for the poll. . . but was not at liberty to say. In a phone interview, Mangano said that he has not seen the report on the poll nor the questions asked.

“One of our members who was conducting a political poll” had the I-81 questions added to that poll, Mangano said.

That may explain why the news release reported that the poll had sampled “likely voters” in Onondaga County, a much smaller group of people in the county than might be expected in a poll on the I-81 issue.

Mangano would not reveal the name of the party conducting the political poll, but he offered to contact that member and ask permission to reveal who authorized and paid for the poll. Contacted a week later, he said that he still could not release that information.

Save 81

Interstate 81. Michael Davis photo.

According to Jeffrey Stonecash, a retired professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, any reliable poll includes a report with information about the poll and how it was done.

“A report should tell you the questions, the sequence of the questions, the alternatives presented,” said Stonecash, who has a long history of polling for candidates in Central New York. “They gotta be able to produce a report, or it’s just not credible. Where did they sample, how did they get their numbers?”

The leaders speaking on behalf of Save 81 say they have not seen such a report.

The information requested by the Syracuse New Times is routinely provided by reputable pollsters and included in standard media reports about poll results.

“Stories based on public opinion polls must include basic information for any intelligent evaluation of the results,” the Associated Press Stylebook says. Among that basic information it lists: “who did the poll and who paid for it” and “the wording and the order of the questions asked in the poll.”

Stonecash also questioned why a poll involving the entire community would survey only likely voters.

“‘Likely voters’ is a strange thing,” he said. “‘Likely voters’ is not representative of the population as a whole. You’re missing a lot of people. You miss young people, low-income people, people with low educational levels, minorities who aren’t as likely to vote.”

Stonecash estimates that such a poll would be expensive: “I would think that would cost 20-25 grand, and it could be much more.”

The Save 81 coalition does not have any legal status, according to Nicotra. “We each put in a bit of our own money,” he said.

“We are sort of an ad hoc group,” said Mangano.

According to Save 81, the poll was conducted by the Parkside Group, a lobbying and public relations company based in New York City. It does not conduct polling.

According to Parkside partner Eric Stavisky, a former organizer for the New York Public Interest Research Group who has worked principally with union campaigns, Parkside was “involved” in the poll, but the person “authorized” to speak about the poll is Phil Singer, of Marathon Strategies. Singer is another Manhattan-based political operative.

Stavisky provided Singer’s phone number, assuring the Syracuse New Times that Singer would be “very responsive.”

He was not.

Stavisky promised to get hold of Singer if the New Times could not reach him and offered his own cellphone number. Since then, neither has returned repeated requests for comment over a period of five weeks.

Singer is a political high roller of the first order. Best known as the national spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he also worked in Sen. Charles Schumer’s press office for four years and served briefly on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Singer is a specialist in opposition research. He founded Marathon Strategies after the Clinton defeat and counts among his clients Walmart, Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, IBM, Yahoo and Schumer.

Marathon is not a polling operation, either. According to the Marathon website, the company “executes across a variety of disciplines coordinated to achieve optimum exposure for your message.”

According to the website, Singer does represent one organization in Central New York that is also affiliated with Save 81: Destiny USA.

Destiny spokesperson David Aitken did not return repeated calls for comment on this story.

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