Reading Between the Lines of Northern Pass Polls

Christophe Courchesne

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.

In 2011, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump were said to be surging contenders in the New Hampshire primary. (photo credit: flickr/DonkeyHotey)

In 2011, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump were said to be surging contenders in the New Hampshire primary. (photo credit: flickr/DonkeyHotey)

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?

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.

Learn more about Northern Pass here or by signing up for CLF’s email newsletter, Northern Pass Wire. For the latest Northern Pass updates,  follow me on Twitter.

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