In recent months, we’ve heard a lot from the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project, Massachusetts and Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities, about swelling support and rising poll numbers. It’s all part of NU’s effort to craft a public relations “narrative”—through weekly posts on its Project Journal blog, in executive presentations to investment analysts, and in statements to the press—to show “momentum” for the project.
Sound familiar? It does to Granite Staters. First-in-the-nation New Hampshire sits at the epicenter of American presidential politics every four years. In the lead-up to the primaries, New Hampshirites hear every possible permutation of political spin, including the daily drumbeat of what X new poll means for the horse race: who’s up, who’s down, who’s headed to victory, who’s in the hunt, who’s crashing and burning. Perhaps more than the residents of other states (with the possible exception of Iowa), we in New Hampshire understand that polls are weapons in the war of media relations, “optics,” and fundraising.
For several years, with varying levels of intensity, NU has been waging a campaign with the same tactics used in any presidential primary to garner support for the Northern Pass project. Full-page newspaper ads. Television commercials. Direct mail. Crowds wearing the same T-shirts at public meetings. Lawn signs. Ubiquitous web ads. Carefully controlled “open houses.” Slick YouTube videos. Campaign surrogates who tweet, write op-eds, and lobby legislators. A message of the week, repeating key themes over and over (with talking points that drip cynicism and take liberties with the facts). Pricey consultants galore. In this game, I would estimate that NU has outspent project opponents, who have occasionally done some advertising of their own, by 20 or 30 to 1.
So let’s turn to Northern Pass’s latest flotilla of “favorable” poll numbers. What do they mean?
- The numbers supporting and opposing Northern Pass remain “remarkably stable,” according to the UNH Survey Center, with no clear majority for or against the project. Four separate recent polls by UNH (one for the Nashua Chamber of Commerce and one for WMUR-TV), the Suffolk University Political Research Center, and Dartmouth College, affirm this same result, with slightly different numbers. All that advertising has not bought Northern Pass (much) love, although its simple messages have undoubtedly swayed some people to say they support the project.
- Many people still don’t know much about Northern Pass (only 53% are very or even somewhat familiar with the project, per the most recent UNH poll). The cross-tabs, when available, show vast majorities opposed in the areas most impacted by the project (74% in the North Country, per the same poll).
- With strong majorities in support, climate protection policies and investments in New Hampshire-based renewable energy are markedly more popular with New Hampshire voters than Northern Pass, according to the poll by Suffolk University.
- If a poll asks questions about underground transmission lines after making egregiously inaccurate statements that they cost ten times as much as overhead lines and that the premium will be charged to New Hampshire customers, like UNH’s poll for the Nashua Chamber did in February, the poll won’t find much support for burying Northern Pass.
In the political world, a ballot question or candidate with support in the low 40s—the average of recent poll results for Northern Pass—would be in serious trouble.
Instead, NU trumpeted the results as signs of major progress in its outreach. This celebratory tone also was evident during NU’s presentation at “Analyst Day” in February, when chief operating officer Lee Olivier remarked that “the opinion about the project is starting to change in a very rapid way” because of a private survey showing “two-to-one support” (a poll that the company never publicly released).
New Hampshire has seen what real comebacks and phony surges look like. While NU may think its public relations machine can buy and spin its way to a perception of political support, New Hampshire isn’t so easily confused.
And NU apparently doesn’t understand something even more fundamental. The ultimate success or demise of Northern Pass has almost nothing to do with a few statewide polls. With so many alternatives emerging, unwavering local opposition, and a long permitting process ahead, “optics” isn’t going to cut it.
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