In its most recent article on a “Santa Monica Pulse” poll, Santa Monica Lookout writer Jorge Casuso wrote, “A monthly push poll of Santa Monica residents found the vast majority wants the City to follow Los Angeles’ more “aggressive” approach to tackling homelessness.” While I am probably the last writer on earth who can pick on another writer for a typo, this slip of “push poll” instead of “pulse poll” is probably more of a Freudian Slip than a simple typo. The term “push poll” is used to define a con employed to sway public opinion, or as Washington Monthly once put it, “The push poll operates under the guise of legitimate survey research to spread lies, rumors, and innuendo.”
And that’s just what the “Santa Monica Pulse Polls” are designed to do. By using unscientific polling methods, the data produced by the polls has been shown to be unreliable and somehow always skews towards presenting a more conservative electorate than the one that exists. This piece will be divided into three parts. The first will show how the poll results differ from reality when compared to election results. The second will show how sloppiness and unprofessionalism have led to these polls being poor reflections of reality. Lastly, we will re-examine who funds the Pulse Polls and offer reasons why the polls are what they are.
Election polling is one of the easiest ways to measure how accurate a polling firm’s results are, because you can compare the polls to the actual election results. In the 2022 election, Pulse Polls created a terrible track record for itself, but yet has done nothing to correct its methodology.
Pulse Polls twice predicted overwhelming support for Armen Melkonians’ campaign for City Council (he finished in 5th place), while the top two vote getters Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick were predicted as also-rans. One of those polls also showed a transfer tax ballot measure supported by then mayor Sue Himmelrich and Unite Here 11 losing by a staggering 41 points (16% in favor, 57% opposed.) The same measure passed weeks after the poll was done with roughly 55% support. Pulse Polls is a “project” of Eyes on 11, a dark money organization that’s entire purpose of existing is to slander Unite Here Local 11, the hotel workers union in Santa Monica.
In a follow-up to the election, Pulse Polls results showed that negative information distributed against incumbent Councilmember Lana Negrete actually boosted her to victory. Negrete finished third in the November election (the top three candidates were elected), almost 1,000 votes ahead of Natalya Zernistkaya who finished fourth. Pulse seized on this close election to throw mud at Unite Here, whose endorsed candidates for city council won the other two seats.
According to this poll, “42 percent said the campaign (against Negrete) actually made them more likely to vote for her. Another 35 percent said it had no impact on their vote. 21 percent said it made them less likely to vote for her.” Negrete was selected on less than 42% of all the ballots (roughly 37.5%).
The article Pulse published that accompanied the election follow-up demonstrates the overall lack of seriousness put into creating these polls and sharing the results. For example:
- In the first paragraph, the writer gets the term “majority” confused with “plurality” when they write, “The majority (32 percent) of respondents said stopping overdevelopment was their main priority.” Again, typos happen. But, this article has been live for three months. In another sign that the people creating and reporting on Pulse Polls don’t understand basic polling terminology, they also repeated the “push poll” typo mentioned above on their own Facebook page.
- The article didn’t discuss the methodology in creating the poll (who was polled and how they were polled) or how many people were polled. The fact sheet accompanying the article does mention that the polling audience is self-selecting.
- The article does not mention the “+/-” possibilities (aka margin of error) for their results.
There’s a direct correlation between items two and three. Pulse e-blasts their surveys to the inboxes of people who signed up, or had someone sign them up, at their website and then just waits for the results to come in. There is no effort to verify that people are who they say they are or gather any sort of demographic information to see if the sample is representative.
If you’re truly interested in understanding the importance of “margin of error” and why it’s important to know what the margins are for a poll, this article by the Pew Research Center lays it out pretty clearly. Pew is considered by many, including me, the gold standard in public opinion research creating models that work in specific hyper-local populations up to global surveys.
Give that the election demonstrated that their polls were producing results well to the right of the political center, a reputable polling organization would seek to correct their methodology. In contrast, Santa Monica Pulse has produced three polls after the election ended that they claim shows that Santa Monica residents oppose mask mandates, support for a city council ordinance that would stop employees of many environmental groups from serving on city commissions, and that residents feel the city is heading in the wrong direction by a 56-6% margin.
The real question isn’t whether or not these “polls” are in any way an accurate reflection of the residents’ of Santa Monica’s opinions. The real question is “why are they being done this way?”
The most obvious reason is that the misinformation created by this polling system is doing what it’s supposed to do. Pulse Polls have some success both in shaping public opinion through the press and swaying political leaders. In the screenshot on the right from the Santa Monica Now Facebook group, Councilmember Phil Brock is not only sharing the results of the Pulse Poll on the ballot measures (which as shown above was completely incorrect), but also arguing that the poll is broadly representative of Santa Monica’s population because anyone can join their mailing list.
The Pulse Polls also help sway the public opinion it is supposed to be reflecting. The Santa Monica Lookout regularly reports on the results of Pulse Polls, and does so without any critique of their methodology. As noted above and to the right, Pulse polls are used in social media posts to create an impression that the electorate is further to the political right than it actually is. And of course, the funders of Pulse Polls, the anti-union group Eyes on 11, uses the polls as content in the news section of their website and on their social media.
Which brings us to Eyes on 11, the website funded by anti-union conservative activist and lobbyist Richard Berman. When Eyes on 11 first appeared on the scene, Jason Islas looked into the origins of the organization, its website, and the people behind it for Santa Monica Next in 2018.
“The site, which launched at the beginning of January, claims that the union is only concerned with expanding its membership base and is doing so at the expense of residents’ quality of life. The launch of the website was coupled with an op-ed by Luka Ladan, the communications director for Berman and Company, that ran in both the OC Register and the LA Daily News,” Islas wrote at the time.
At the time, Santa Monica’s elected leader took umbrage with the website for its blatant misinformation campaign against a local union, a marked change from today when Councilmembers will spread the propaganda for Eyes on 11.
Berman’s involvement in the group should also be a red flag. Berman founded the non-profit “Center for Union Facts” an ideological and perhaps fiscal parent for Eyes on 11 in the early two thousands. The organization raises millions of dollars every year, but refuses to disclose its donors. Much of the funds that it raises goes back to Berman’s Public Relations firm Berman and Company which is “atypical” according to Charity Navigator.
However, creating the appearance of a charity and using it to push a political narrative and enrich oneself is a common strategy for Berman and Company. Berman has also founded Center for Organizational Research and Education, American Beverage Institute, and Employment Policies Institute (links to their Wikipedia pages). All of these organizations have a similar operational model: they are founded by Berman, push a “free market” ideology that would attract big money donors, are very active in the political arena, hide their donors’ identities from the public and funnel much of their money back to Berman and Company.
Based on what we’ve shown here, it is near-certain that someone is paying for Santa Monica Pulse to intentionally muddy the local political waters and create uncertainty about Unite Here Local 11’s role and political power. The only questions that remain are, “who is the person or company paying for Berman and Company to make this play?” and “why would anyone aid them in spreading their misinformation disguised as public opinion?”.
(Note, Santa Monica Pulse Polls should not be confused with the Santa Monica Pulse Party Network which is completely different and a thousand times more fun.)