Markos has a story up evaluating the performance of the R2K poll. The poll did well; I'm both glad and unsurprised. To a great extent, though, where the poll ranks among its peers doesn't matter. Even before the Election night results came through, the R2K poll already belonged in the highest stratosphere of historical accomplishments of the netroots. While the credit for most netroots accomplishments belongs to us all, this one feels different to me. Putting out these polls was basically Markos being audacious; the credit accrues purely to him and to his team.
I will try to make the case below for why, far from simply a nice frippery like the (also quite impressive) Election Map on this site, the R2K was up there with allowing participant diaries as one of the signal developments in the history of the netroots. I'm not sure that I could defend that sentiment to the bitter end, but I'll give it a shot.
A personal aside: I've missed most of the last month on the site, participating rarely and reading much less than I'd like. After a quick post-election night at home prior to flying out east for job interviews, today is the first day I've really been able to participate here again. My point is that today's diary and the ones to come will not be as timely as I would have preferred; nevertheless, I hope that they are still of interest.
About 17 months ago, I wrote a controversial diary entitled "A better idea than impeachment: polling impeachment," part of the thrust of which is that when the established media outlets aren't doing what we think they ought to be doing, it was the place of the netroots to muster its forces and do it instead. The diary there was intended to channel the rage on this site over wanting Democrats to impeach into something productive: evaluating and documenting the desire of the public to go along with the program. That's something that could have been taken to members of Congress and perhaps have made a difference.
Markos did, with respect to this election, what the netroots didn't do regarding impeachment: he saw a critical gap in our knowledge of public opinion and he filled it. While I have great respect for (and indeed a fatal attraction to) commenting and writing about the issues of the day, I have even higher respect for acting on them.
The reasons that the R2K poll was so audacious are these:
(1) It must have been incredibly expensive
(2) It shone a light on the deficiencies of standard survey industry practice
(3) It provided material help to specific candidacies
(4) No one expected or demanded that Markos do it
I'll take these in turn:
Expense: I've run polls as an academic survey researcher and I have priced them as a campaign operative. I won't even dare estimate how much the R2K polling must have cost because every back-of-the-envelope estimateI generate turns out to be absurdly large. Maybe Markos is now rich -- but he suggests that he isn't and I believe him. That being so, spending as much as he has not merely on a poll, but a daily tracking poll -- not merely on a national poll, but a series of state and district polls focusing on specific races as well -- is simply incredible.
There is a reason that we haven't seen daily tracking polls from the press most election cycles -- and that reason is expense. I suspect that many readers may have looked at the poll every morning and considered it to be a natural part of the site -- something that ought to be there, like an election map. My reaction, especially as the state polls came through, was increasing levels of shock at the audacity of the enterprise, as if Markos was slowly selling off the family jewels without making a big deal out of it.
Before anyone else says it: yes, I realize that to a great extent the R2K poll could be justified as a marketing expense. Maybe that is how Markos justifies it to himself, to his wife, or to his bookkeeper. I'm sure that it rightly has had the effect of increasing the visibility and credibility of the site. But if I'm anywhere close in my estimate of the cost, there must have been cheaper, safer, and saner alternatives if that was kos's main motivation. This had to be a significant gamble for him.
Shaming the pros: The most audacious thing about the poll aside from its expense is how it took square aim at the deficiencies of the polling industry and shamed it into better behavior. Day after day, Markos and his Contributing Editors went over the internals and showed why they were essential to understanding what was going on, and why the absence of published internals from other sources undercut their value. He has raised the stakes on his corporate media competitors; they have to compete on his terms or be left in the dust. I don't know if Markos's challenge is why we saw an unprecedented (to my knowledge) number of other tracking polls blooming towards the end of the campaign, but it wouldn't surprise me.
The R2K poll should be haunting the established news agencies as they review this year's activities and look towards the next cycle. It has done, in one blow, to a discrete and critical portion of the journalism establishment what the entire progressive blogosphere has attempted (with more effort but I'd argue less success) to do to the rest of the profession: forced them to improve their game. I don't mean "improve their game" in terms of how to construct or analyze polls, though R2K apparently did both well. (Those two Obama freefalls we saw, after the third debate and in the last week, do still bear some explanation, though. I think that those did me some permanent psychic damage.) Rather, it forces true competitors both to improve their game in terms of the service provided (tracking, focus on competitive races) and transparency. That is a rare and precious contribution to political journalism.
Helping candidacies: I want to say first that, in saying that the R2K poll helps candidacies, I do not mean to imply that it is in any way a campaign expense. It is purely legitimate: open, published, transparent journalism that anyone could decide to do. Rather, the poll helps Democratic candidacies in the same way that a non-partisan voter-protection drive does: removing some of the advantages accrued by superior fundraising. In the case of voter protection, it works by blunting voter suppression efforts; in this case, it works by making information free.
How important is this? Having been directly involved this cycle in one race in my home district of CA-42 and informally involved in a second after that candidate defeated my former boss, I can tell you that the first thing everyone wants to know before they give money is "what does your poll say?", and if you don't have a poll, that speaks even louder than any results. The first problem we had in CA-42 was realizing that, despite having raised some decent money at first, we were not going to be able to afford an early poll. I expect that many candidates elsewhere were in similar positions.
What the R2K poll did was to ask smart questions from a progressive netroots sensibility that could be of real use to Democratic candidates. (They could also be of good use to Republicans, but those guys tend to have their own polls, so the marginal use of R2K is limited.) Here, R2K can serve as a guide for other organizations who would like to follow in Markos's footsteps and provide desperately needed information to underfunded candidates. (In fact, one of the smartest things that the Democratic Party could do is to train people to conduct and manage polls and offer the service freely to those considering elections. We have the people and we can get the cell phone minutes; they just need to be trained.)
Exceeding expectations: the most amazing thing to me about the R2K poll is that it was not a "logical next step" for Markos and the site, the way that the Election Map and various other developments have been. Had we not been able to see election night results so easily, there might have been grumbling in the Recent Diary column and the usual muttering that "kos should do something about that." But no one that I saw here had ever suggested, perhaps even imagined, that Markos should do anything like this. Without R2K, we would have groused at the polling this cycle, we still would have celebrated the work of Nate Silver, Sean Quinn, and I'm not going to forget Sam Wang -- and things would have gone on pretty much as expected. It would have been fine. No one would have noticed or missed the absence of a Daily Kos tracking poll.
That it was so unexpected is what makes the R2K poll so significant and visionary. This was not "hitting one out of the park." This was more like "inventing SABRmetrics." Kos was not being Alex Rodriguez here; he was being Bill James. (Or, in football terms, he was not heaving a touchdown like Joe Montana; he was inventing the West Coast Offense like Bill Walsh.)
While I've long been a loud proponent of Daily Kos, I've also long been a loud critic of Markos personally when I think he screws up. Part of the responsibility that goes with that role, I think, is being willing to celebrate him loudly when he does something great.
The most critical development in Daily Kos's history, I believe, was the move to Scoop and the present site stucture with individual user accounts and the ability to produce diaries and threaded comments. Seeing that and grasping the opportunity is what put Markos, as an entrepreneur, ahead of others in the progressive blogging community; it what led me to spend my time here in 2005 rather than commenting in my previous congenial but clunky environment of Eschaton.
With the advent of the R2K poll, though, Markos has done it again. Most of the other great developments of the Blogosphere -- the advent of Open Left and Glenn Greenwald and Nate Silver, to take three -- have to some extent or other depended on the existence of DKos and its ability for people to develop an individual voice and portfolio, but once individual accounts existed at some prominent progressive site it was only a matter of time until people like them would rise to prominence. Likewise, the greatest impact of the netroots on politics may well be in promoting progressive fundraising, but it's not the same sort of innovation: someone would have figured it out soon enough how to do it as avidely and as well as DKos has done.
But what makes this development so great is that if Markos had not decided to dig down and do it, it would not have been done -- perhaps never have been done. It was not easy, not obvious, and once done it was too easy to take for granted. That's what makes it so damn great.