Raising Kane

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

Kane bristled when asked about the potential conflicts of interest. "Of course you can be a pollster and political consultant," he said. "That's the dumbest question I ever heard. Most pollsters are." He insisted that he is not obligated to disclose his political and business affiliations to reporters, as long as his comments are based on nonpartisan Florida Voter polls and not on polls paid for by private clients.

But two prominent polling experts disagree with Kane, and the ethics codes created by the National Council on Public Polls (NCOPP) and the American Association For Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) contradict his position. Those codes call for all pollsters, when they publicly release findings, to disclose who paid for the survey, who conducted it, and how it was done. The aim is to ensure that the public has an adequate basis for judging the validity of the reported results.

"It would be in the spirit of our ethics code for him to disclose the ownership of the polling firm," says Michael Kagay, news-survey editor for The New York Times and past president of the AAPOR. "Wouldn't you naturally be suspicious about any company that wouldn't tell you who its CEO is?" Contrary to Kane's contention, Kagay says, it's "rather unusual" for a pollster also to serve as a lobbyist.

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

"He may be doing legitimate and competent work," says media pollster Warren Mitofsky, who is the standards chairman for the association and drafted the NCOPP's disclosure code. "But if he refuses to disclose who owns the polling company, he's polling for partisan causes, and he's working as a lobbyist and campaign consultant, that raises a red flag, at least in terms of appearance."

Kagay says Kane may have violated the ethics codes by sharing only some of the polling results on the county government reform issue earlier this year with New Times. Kane gave this reporter a brief summary of his findings (which appeared in a New Times article on February 11, "At-Large Ignorance"), but declined to discuss them any further on the grounds that the poll was done for a private client. The ethics codes, however, state that if a pollster publicizes findings -- including those based on a privately sponsored survey -- he is required to provide full details on the sponsorship, methodology, and percentages upon which the conclusions are based. "If some or all the material was released publicly, then the pollster has an obligation under the code to share basic disclosure," Kagay says.

Despite Kane's potentially conflicting roles, the Sun-Sentinel commissioned him to conduct a series of pre-election surveys last year on the Jeb Bush-Buddy MacKay gubernatorial race. As a Bush supporter, Florida Voter publisher Austin Forman had a vested interest in the results. Kane was widely quoted in the news media saying that Bush was far ahead.

Kathy Trumbull, deputy managing editor of the Sun-Sentinel, refused to say whether her paper will hire Kane to poll for next year's elections, in which Forman's preferred candidate, George W. Bush, is likely to be a presidential contender. "Our experience with Mr. Kane is that he has always been very reliable," she said. Asked whether it is a conflict of interest for the paper to use a pollster who is active as a lobbyist and whose journal is published by Austin Forman, she said: "You'd have to ask Mr. Kane about the ownership."

Mitofsky expressed surprise that the Sun-Sentinel would hire Kane. "It's a serious lapse in judgment for a news organization to hire a pollster who does partisan work," he says. "They wouldn't carry a news story written by a person who was working for someone with a vested interest in what was in the story. I don't know why they would use a pollster under the same circumstances." Trumbull declined to respond to Mitofsky's criticism.

Kagay acknowledges that The New York Times, which quoted Kane at least five times in 1999 alone, also may have been lax in not noting his partisan affiliations. Times reporters are supposed to call Kagay to check out a pollster's background. But he doesn't recall any reporter asking him to vet Kane. "If the pollster might have biases, that would be of high interest," he says. "You'd want some disclosure to alert readers that there may be some conflict of interest or certain interests at stake."

But Terry Neal of The Washington Post, which also has quoted Kane at least five times in the past year and identified him only as a "nonpartisan" pollster, says Kane's local political connections won't deter him from calling Kane in the future. "The question for me is whether a pollster is respected by both sides and offers unbiased polls," he says. "I don't know anyone accusing him of shading his polls for ideological reasons."

Still, WPBT-TV, after being contacted by New Times, decided that it will "properly and accurately" identify him if and when he's invited back on the Issues show. "The producer was unaware of his other affiliations," says Jody Rafkind, the station's advertising and promotions manager. "I don't know if we'd still use him for South Florida issues."

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