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Erica Holloway

Tipping Point: DeMaio Signs Top Pollster Nienstedt

Camp Carl DeMaio must be doing a jig.

Earlier this week, the councilman signed highly-respected pollster John Nienstedt of Competitive Edge Research & Communication.

So far, the polling for the San Diego mayoral race ain’t been what most of us race watchers would consider legit.

This move signifies a tipping point in the race that will no doubt lead to some substantive research providing supporters, donors and voters alike a clearer view of the field.

The most recent poll, conducted by SurveyUSA from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 for KGTV, Channel 10, showed DeMaio in the top spot with 25 percent of the vote followed closely by long-time Democrat Congressman Bob Filner with 24 percent.

Trailing behind the pair were Republicans, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis with 14 percent and state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher at 13 percent.

Respondents in the poll were given the choice of “other” or “undecided” which together amounted to 24 percent – equal to Filner’s share of the vote.

While interesting for news fodder, it’s not exactly the sort of metrics serious politicos put much stock in.

Of the 800 San Diego adults surveyed between January 30 and February 3, only 695 were registered voters and of those, just 511 were “determined by SurveyUSA to be likely to vote in the 06/05/12 primary.”

A far more ideal survey might weed out respondents at the top of the survey based on voting behavior to focus solely on those high propensity voters whose opinions of the candidates do amount to a hill of beans.

Much of the like research shows DeMaio and Filner going head-to-head in the general, but once there – who would take the big enchilada?

Conventional wisdom indicates that Filner takes the seat.

San Diego’s still a Democratic majority base with a moderate Republican bent. The backing of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the San Diego County Democratic Party assures Filner of member communication which helps in the primary, especially if the Republicans don’t endorse, but in the general – they’ll be better matched.

That’s where air-tight research comes into play.

In his 25th year of business, Nienstedt’s managed to earn the much-deserved respect and praise of those he’s consulted by helping them win – from San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray in the wake of the Cunningham scandal when anti-Republican sentiment hit a fever pitch to sitting San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who faced heavy opposition in both of his races.

Just last night at the San Diego Republican Party Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith reminisced about his great Nienstedt experiences dating back to his state Assembly races.

It’s a tricky balancing act for a reputable pollster – sometimes, the odds ain’t in a candidate’s favor and what’s a pollster to do but offer the best analysis possible on how one might win.

Nienstedt, who’s a client of mine, recently wrote an interesting blog post for the Campaign Doctor in which he fully acknowledges that not every candidate needs a poll elaborating that “the wrong poll conducted for the wrong reasons may send you in the wrong direction and cost you the race.”

No doubt lots of candidates, including those in the current San Diego mayoral race, believes any poll helps in some way – raises voter confidence, increases donation leverage or signifies a sure-thing to important endorsers.

But it’s a world of poll-reader beware.

Consider the source of information in all voter research and never take it at face value. Even the best consultants – some of the most highly-paid actually – fall into the trap of convincing candidates that a poll means more than it does.

Sometimes, research reveals huge inescapable holes in a campaign that highlights a candidate cannot win and other research might show that the candidate could win, but not in the way they prefer. Politics requires all the moving parts to remain fluid and keep expectations in check.

As Nienstedt points out for would-be candidates, be savvy and protect yourself: “Once you have decided to run, there is really only one reason to poll: to help you win. If you can’t draw a solid line from the poll you are contemplating to how it will help you win, do not do it.”

Sounds easy enough and sometimes, it is.

But then again, the sausage might only taste good because you didn’t see the animal get processed.

Yet, one thing seems crystal clear with DeMaio signing Nienstedt – he intends to win and how.

A great pollster makes for a dangerous weapon.

– Follow me @erica_holloway.

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