Conservative Pollster Defends CNN Poll on Audience Perception of Obama Speech

By Pete Winn | September 10, 2009 | 9:29 PM EDT

President Barack Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress on healthcare at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009. (AP photo)

( – Conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway Thursday defended the integrity of CNN’s Wednesday night poll of those who watched President Obama’s speech to Congress on health-care legislation. 

The CNN survey, which was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation after the speech, found that two-thirds – or 67 percent -- of those who watched the president’s speech had a favorable impression of his health-care reform plan afterwards, up from 53 percent before the speech was made. The margin of error was plus-or-minus 5 percentage points.

On Thursday, some conservatives in Washington were buzzing about the poll’s sample – and questioning whether it might have been partisan or slanted. 

Of the 427 people randomly questioned by telephone, only 18 percent “identified themselves as Republicans” – according to the poll -- while 45 percent “identified themselves as Democrats and 37 percent identified themselves as Independents.” 

But Conway, who has questioned the validity of numerous polls in the past for being slanted against conservatives, said it would be wrong to question the validity of this CNN poll.

“This is a poll of debate-watchers – not the general population,” the pollster said. 

In fact, polls like this one are not designed to sample what the American public at large thinks – they are “a random-call measure of who the audience really was – and what those specific people thought,” she told 

“To their (CNN’s) enormous credit, they reported it that way,” Conway told

“They did not say ‘2 out of 3 Americans now support the president on health-care reform,” Conway said. “What (CNN) said, from the beginning, was ‘2 out of 3 Americans who watched the speech said . . .’”

In this case, she said, Wednesday night’s poll talked to more Democrats simply because Obama’s audience itself leaned overwhelmingly Democratic. 

“The audience – meaning the people who actually tuned in to watch Barack Obama versus watching Derek Jeter tie Lou Gehrig’s all-time hitting record as a Yankee – was heavily partisan, heavily Democratic. Why? Because the president is heavily partisan and heavily Democratic and his speech was heavily partisan and heavily Democratic. 

“I don’t think the poll was partisan, but I think the audience was partisan, and CNN is actually admitting that,” she said. 

In fact, CNN “went the extra mile” to make it clear that the number of those who identified themselves as Democrats was “8 to 10 percentage points higher than the national Democratic sample would be if this were a survey of voters,” Conway said. 

CNN told that the network routinely does post-speech polls and selects respondents at random – picking those who say they actually watched the speech. 

“We can’t control who watched the speech, but we found those people using scientific methods,” a CNN executive, who asked not to be identified, said.  

The number of Republicans versus Democrats in the sample will vary depending on which party is in office, the spokesman said. 

“It goes back and forth, and back and forth depending on which party controls the White House, but we’ve seen this for a really long time,” the spoksman added. 

“In 2005, just after the 2005 State of the Union speech, for example, 52 percent of our sample were Republicans – that’s about 16 points higher than the whole public at that time -- and only 25 percent of the speech-watchers were Democrats, and that’s about 7 points under what you might have expected at that time if you had done a sample of the whole population.” 

The analogy is to baseball, according to CNN. 

“The audience (for a presidential speech) tends to self-select, like a Yankee audience and a Red Sox audience,” the spokesman said. “Red Sox fans don’t watch Yankee games and Yankee fans don’t watch Red Sox games.”

Conway, meanwhile, warned that it would be dishonest for anyone to try to use the results of Wednesday’s audience reaction poll to somehow conclude that two-thirds of Americans now support Obamacare. 

“I can bet the farm, there will be pundits and programs and hosts, who will say, ‘According to the CNN poll, the president has really gotten back on track. Two-thirds of Americans now support his health-care. . .’ No-no. They would be misreading the poll and using the poll for their own purposes.

“But in fairness, CNN did not report it that way,” she added. 

Conway is president of the polling company/Woman Trend, a Washington, D.C.-based public opinion firm.