Second response to The Baton Rouge Business Report

Funny how public opinion which differs from its own can arouse the ire of the management of The Baton Rouge Business Report. Recently, the Baton Rouge TEA Party hired JMC Enterprises of Louisiana to conduct a three-question poll, which sought East Baton Rouge Parish voters’ opinions on (1) the TEA Party’s efforts to increase public awareness of local government, (2) the job performance of Mayor-President “Kip” Holden, and (3) a proposal to build a new library in downtown Baton Rouge.

The publication of this poll, for some reason, has gotten the attention of The Baton Rouge Business Report, which has devoted two articles to the matter. In the first article, the publisher dismissed JMC Enterprises of Louisiana as “some JMC Enterprises, which I have never heard of” and waved off the results of the poll with a terse statement that “The voters have already spoken.”

In our response to the first article, I noted that “our perspective was not sought before this column was published.” The Baton Rouge Business Report then contacted me about the poll, and it became quickly apparent during the interview that information for a “hit piece” on my business was being developed. The resulting column, in both tone and substance, was not at all what I would have expected as objective journalism. My responses are below:

(1)    I would expect that a reporter could spell my last name correctly if she were working to disparage it. In the article, my last name was incorrectly spelled as “Couvillion” (its actual spelling is “Couvillon”). Also, the full legal name of my business is “JMC Enterprises of Louisiana.” It was never referred to as such, not even on first reference. These errors, which would have been easy enough to check, indicate that assumptions were made not only about me, but about the conduct of my business.

(2)    “…..No doubt, there was plenty of opposition for the construction of a new River Center branch. But was it really 61%, as shown by the JMC Enterprises survey? And who is JMC Enterprises?”

If there was, in the Business Report’s own words, “plenty of opposition for the construction of a new River Center Branch,” then what is their issue with my poll?

Here are the facts — I conducted a random survey of East Baton Rouge Parish voters. It’s legitimate to question whether 61% truly oppose the new downtown library; it should also be noted that 20% of respondents were undecided. Only 19% favored this plan. No group of voters showed anything close to majority support for this proposal. Furthermore, the survey also showed that Mayor-President Kip Holden had a slightly higher approval rating than the TEA Party, who paid for this poll. If I were merely a TEA Party shill (which is the obvious implication of these articles), I could have conveniently left out that finding. I did not. I reported the responses to every question.

To answer the “who is JMC Enterprises” question (which has been asked twice now), JMC Enterprises of Louisiana is a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based corporation providing analytical services to clients, one of which is poll development/analysis. My company has been engaged by clients across the country, many of whom The Baton Rouge Business Report has likely heard of and/or supported. The Business Report was, furthermore, factually incorrect when they asserted that “The firm is less than two years old.” While I have been offering my services for a fee for over three years, I provided political advice to party insiders/consultants for longer than that.

(3)    “…..local media entities and websites treated the poll as though it had the credibility of a survey conducted by Gallup or Pew when, in fact, there were plenty of reasons to be at least a little skeptical….”  

I disagree that only national polling firms are entitled to credibility; there are Louisiana-based firms who similarly do professional work. And let’s be honest, this kind of local issue would fly under the radar of large national firms like Gallup or Pew. Furthermore, I was interviewed by Rebekah Allen of The Baton Rouge Advocate regarding this poll. And on other matters political outside of this poll, I have been contacted for comment several times by Advocate columnist Gerard Shields. So it’s not clear to me why this magazine, with “Baton Rouge” in its title, seeks to discredit “local media entities” and Baton Rouge-based pollsters, specifically when it comes to communications on issues of interest to Baton Rougeans.

(4)    “….For starters, JMC Enterprises has close ties to the Baton Rouge Tea Party, which paid for the survey and made no bones about its opposition to a new downtown library. That doesn’t mean the firm conducted its poll with bias, but it does make you wonder what other groups or companies it has worked for and how it goes about asking questions….”

The Baton Rouge TEA Party is a client. They sought my services after initial consulting work I did for them in 2009 helped defeat a bond proposal, supported by The Baton Rouge Business Report, by a 64-36% margin. This client relationship is one of several I have within and outside Baton Rouge. As to “what other groups or companies it has worked for” several newly elected East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members have all recently and successfully benefitted from my services.

(5)    “….That might have put JMC Enterprises on the map in the minds of the local Tea Party supporters, but the firm is still unknown in most political circles, and its low-budget website does little to inspire confidence….”  

Is legitimacy defined by a business only existing with the express consent of The Baton Rouge Business Report (or the volume of bells and whistles my website contains)? It is true that JMC Enterprises of Louisiana has not been around as a business entity for decades. The same was probably said about The Baton Rouge Business Report several decades ago. But in its existence so far, JMC Enterprises’ clients have ranged from political consultants to candidates for the Republican State Central Committee to the U.S. House of Representatives. I have worked races in various states, and my clients have had varying ideologies. Hardly something “on the map in the minds of local TEA Party supporters.” As for my “low-budget website,” I’m interested in content and substance, not pop-up ads and sparkles. The content of my work product speaks for itself.

(6)    “…More questionable is that the firm is not registered as a pollster with the secretary of state’s office, as required by law….”  

Here’s where the Business Report article really reaches for straws. The statute in question is Louisiana R.S. 14:325. JMC Enterprises contacted the Secretary of State’s office regarding this law. Apparently, it is on the books, but not being enforced to the letter. I discussed this issue with the Elections Division, and they consider the incorporation of a business sufficient for the purposes of this statute. JMC Enterprises is incorporated to do business in the state of Louisiana. A quick check of the corporate database would have provided this information to The Baton Rouge Business Report, had they bothered to look.

For what it’s worth, this statute is in an obscure part of the law, sandwiched between sections on abandoned ice boxes and parade permits, and it is not generally known to political types I have spoken with as part of my due diligence. The statute specifically states that “Any persons, associations, partnerships, or corporations who offer themselves to the public as professional poll takers shall register with the secretary of state before commencing such activity and annually thereafter not later than February fifteenth of each year. Only the managing or overseeing party responsible for conducting the poll must register under this Act.”

(UPDATE) This statute is under the charge of the Commercial (not the Elections) Division of the Secretary of State. JMC Enterprises of Louisiana is a registered pollster under the provisions of this law.

(7)    “….JMC Enterprises used electronic dialing to contact on landlines 10,000 so-called likely voters in East Baton Rouge Parish….There’s nothing wrong with using landlines or even electronic call systems per se, but they are less effective and less accurate than scientific, automated methods….”

Live calls from those conducting phone polls are not necessarily more effective, since perceived or actual biases of the caller can affect the tone of the poll question and the resulting response.

(8)    “….A bigger problem is that—by Couvillion’ s own admission—his poll underrepresented black voters and overrepresented white ones. Couvillion says he accounted for the difference by weighing the response of black voters more heavily. We’ll have to take his word for it, but it’s not exactly the best way to take the pulse of parish voters….” 

Since this methodology is an issue with The Baton Rouge Business Report, I will reiterate — the poll sample mirrored the East Baton Rouge electorate. The proportion of sampled African-Americans responding to the survey did NOT mirror the electorate, so adjustments (which I documented) were made. The result of these adjustments was an increase in the Mayor-President’s job approval, while the approval ratings of the TEA Party decreased. The favorability numbers on the library proposal barely changed, because the library proposal was uniformly unpopular across all demographic groups.

(9)    “……That’s not the most objective way to preface a question about a complex and controversial issue, and it’s not even factually correct. Perhaps that’s why the Metro Council didn’t take the results of the poll too seriously when making its decision. It’s unfortunate the local media didn’t exercise the same judgment when reporting on it….”

Actually, public opinion WAS considered by the Metro Council: 7 out of 12 members (including the Mayor Pro Tem) voted “No” to the Library Board recommendation. The Plan of Government, however, required 8 votes to overturn the recommendation of the Library Board. Due to that supermajority requirement, the library proposal “passed.” As to the “judgment” of the local media, what credentials does the Business Report have to sit in judgment of the local news media?

In conclusion, a purely local issue has aroused the ire of the management of The Baton Rouge Business Report enough for two less-than-objective articles to be written. While I do appreciate the free publicity from these two articles, I have some questions for the management of the Business Report: Why does the downtown library interest you so much? And what qualifies you to sit in judgment of local reporters, political consultants, and those performing polling services?