Raising Kane

How Jim Kane transformed himself from a special-interest lobbyist into a lobbyist who's also Florida's best-known political pollster

Four years ago he got a shot at his dream. With Austin Forman's financial help, he launched the Davie-based Florida Voter as part of an organization called the Forman Center For Political Studies. Kane surveys registered Florida voters four to six times a year, mostly on statewide issues like affirmative action, the governor's job-approval ratings, and political races. Florida Voter pays for some of the polls, and media clients sponsor others. Kane puts his findings in the journal, for which subscribers pay $250 a year.

Kane refuses to discuss the ownership of Florida Voter, and Forman, according to his assistant, does not speak to reporters. But Forman was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel two years ago saying that he pays for the polls and the journal as a way of "empowering people" -- and loses money on the venture. Forman is listed as publisher, and Parrish and others say they assume he still funds the operation. Unlike Kane, Forman makes no claim of being nonpartisan. He was a major supporter of Republican candidate Jeb Bush for governor last year. This past June he was a prominent presence at a $1000-a-head fundraiser for Texas governor George W. Bush, a leading GOP presidential candidate.

Florida Voter got a big boost to its nonpartisan credentials when the University of Florida political science department signed on as cosponsor in 1996. Kane was appointed adjunct professor at the university, where he teaches courses on lobbying and collaborates on research with Stephen Craig, a UF political science professor. Craig says the university's relationship with Florida Voter,which he refused to discuss in detail, allows professors to conduct surveys the school couldn't otherwise afford. "This is a really unique opportunity, because you won't find many people like Jim Kane who are willing to let people like me have access to the kind of data he produces," he says. Asked whether he is concerned that a partisan activist like Austin Forman bankrolls the journal, Craig replied: "Of course that impacts on [Kane's] credibility. We take that into account, and we do that in a way that has satisfied us." Craig also says he's not concerned about Kane's lobbying and consulting duties. "His political affiliations and work are his business."

Stranahan House board member Dick Dickinson faces an uphill battle against Jim Kane and his developer-client, who wants to put a high-rise on the supermarket site (left) next to the historic house
Melissa Jones
Stranahan House board member Dick Dickinson faces an uphill battle against Jim Kane and his developer-client, who wants to put a high-rise on the supermarket site (left) next to the historic house

But others find Kane's multiple roles disturbing. There is always the potential for a pollster's biases to influence the wording and ordering of questions, sample selection, and data interpretation, notes Jerry Kolo, an urban planning professor at Florida Atlantic University. It is impossible, he argues, for Kane's sponsorship and affiliations not to influence his research findings, at least subtly. "The Formans are one of the most powerful political forces in Florida," Kolo says. "Kane has aligned himself with them. Why would he do anything against the interests of his allies?"

While no one has found specific examples of bias in his Florida Voter polls, Kane released survey findings this year that helped Austin Forman's favorite brother-act. In the July 6, 1999, issue of the journal, Kane reported that, in a hypothetical presidential matchup, George W. Bush had "extended" his lead over Al Gore to 18 points. Kane explained that Jeb Bush's increased job approval rating as governor has been a big boost to George W. He also told New Times that if Gore wins the Democratic nomination, he doesn't have a prayer of carrying Florida and won't seriously campaign here, which would hurt the Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate.

These findings and conclusions may be legitimate. But the news media typically disclose the party or special-interest affiliation of pollsters they quote to help the public understand a pollster's potential biases. In Kane's case, however, the media invariably describe him as nonpartisan or independent. In late June, The New York Times published an article downplaying the political impact of the incident in which Jeb Bush's wife lied to customs agents about her Paris shopping purchases. Kane was quoted as saying that it would have "no effect at all" on the Bush brothers' popularity with voters. He was identified in the article only as "editor of the Florida Voter, a news and polling service." The Times reporter also quoted another pollster expressing the same view. That pollster was identified as a Republican.

Questions about Kane's objectivity are even more obvious when he polls on Broward issues. Earlier this year he conducted a USA Poll for the Broward League of Cities on how voters view the proposed overhaul of county government, which will be the subject of a referendum next March. In June The Heraldran an article on Kane's findings: strong public support for electing county commissioners from single-member districts, but much weaker backing for establishing a strong county mayor. Earlier this week the Sun-Sentinel published the results of a new Florida Voter poll showing increased support for a strong mayor. Neither The Herald nor the Sun-Sentinel mentioned Kane's close ties to the county commissioners, who fiercely oppose the strong-mayor model because it would reduce their power. "He's a little too close to the flame to be polling a local issue like that," says Dan Lewis, a veteran Broward political consultant.

Kane's defenders argue that, while he probably should disclose his affiliations, his survey methodology is scientifically solid. "I am aware of the Forman connection, but it doesn't affect my assessment of his polling, because the techniques he uses are sound," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida who cooperates with Kane on research. "I'm careful to look at sample size and the wording of questions, and I can't ever recall seeing a question of his that I thought was intentionally misworded." Besides, she says, Kane can't afford to let his vested interests influence his conclusions. "If he turns out to be wrong, no one will subscribe to his polls. That's the best check of all."

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