Are polls relevant?

Pat Borchers 01Pat Borchers is a contributing writer on Leavenworth St.

Robynn Tysver (the most senior of the Omaha World-Herald political reporters) and I are professional acquaintances. She has quoted me in various stories. In case you’re wondering, I don’t go “off the record.” I figure that if someone wants to give me grief over something I’ve said that I should get the grief and not her.

But in our professional acquaintance, she said something that has stuck with me. She said that polls aren’t worth much until about 30 days before the election. She’s right.

The context in which she said it to me was the GOP primary for the Senate in 2014. If you rolled back the polls to about 60 days before the primary, Shane Osborn (whom I supported in the primary) looked like a certain winner. But 30 days out, Ben Sasse (for whom I worked hard in the general) clearly had caught an updraft and Sid Dinsdale had gotten some traction.

As it turned out, Sasse won the primary with 49% (carrying 92 of 93 counties) and Dinsdale and Osborn were in the low 20’s.

So far, it’s hard to argue with the voters. Sasse, with his formidable intellect and charisma, is likely to be a force in the Senate for years unless he gets dragged into a national election (in which case he might be something bigger).

So what’s the point? Locally, incumbent Congressman Brad Ashford is likely to poll ahead of any likely GOP opponent in the NE-2 election. Two years ago, the Nebraska Democratic Party was doing handsprings over the fact that polling showed that Lee Terry had only a small lead over Pete Festersen. Oh wait. You mean that Festersen didn’t run? But Terry still lost? Unimaginable.

I’m sure that any poll would show Ashford with a big lead over any of the likely GOP nominees to oppose him. But it doesn’t matter. At this point, polls are little more than a name identification test. Ashford, who has been around the political block a time (or two, or three, or four), has a huge name identification advantage over any likely opponent.

The same is true at the presidential level. Mrs. Clinton has a double-digit advantage over any of the likely GOP nominees for President. It. Doesn’t. Matter.

The presidential election will be won or lost on whether the GOP nominee can put forward a comprehensible plan that’s better than the slow-motion “recovery” that President Obama is touting as economic “success” and whether the GOP nominee can put forward a plan that offers a foreign policy that is something other than a Neville Chamberlain-esque attempted appeasement of our enemies.

So work hard for your preferred candidate. Rally around the nominee of your party even if he or she isn’t your dream date.

Not much is at stake. Just the future of our nation and the world. No pressure.


  1. E Hines says:

    It occurs to me that polls serve a number of purposes. One of the most importance is as individual data points in a trend of public opinion development. If we accept one tenet, that voters don’t get interested in elections/politics until the end game of a campaign/election season (those last 30 days), than the later polls either confirm a building trend indicated by those earlier polls, or they indicate a break in the trend as later voters (the uninformed?) start to come in and get better informed.

    Those early polls, also, like anecdotes indicate areas of useful focus for a candidate to emphasize an apparent strength or to fill in and strengthen an apparent gap in his messaging outcome.

    A third purpose (especially for the more desperate, but it’s worked well enough in some instances in the past) is to argue that “the situation is settled, the debate is over” and thereby to marginalize an opponent and his argument.

    I wouldn’t write off early polls just because, at that early stage, they’re unlikely to represent a larger trend that hasn’t yet developed.

    Eric Hines

  2. Patrick J. Borchers says:

    I probably should have made clearer that I’m referring to candidate polls, not issue polls. The latter have value and could affect how a campaign is run. I take your point.

    • E Hines says:

      I knew that’s what you meant, and it was candidate polls to which I was referring. The strengths and gaps, especially, can be teased out of the variety of questions asked on a candidate poll. Or, at least most of the ones I’ve seen have been more than just a list of candidates and a request to indicate the favored choice.

      Although, those have similar value, given an a priori understanding of where each candidate fits on the political and known issues spectra.

      Eric Hines

  3. E Hines says:

    Not necessarily. Regardless, it’s not very efficient, and fairly hubristic, to disregard the data in those early polls.

    Suppose you’re in a Republican primary race with a candidate who’s center-left (there are such), you and another who are center-right, another who’s solidly right, and a libertarian running as a Republican. An early poll has the center-left with a measurable lead; your fellow center-right follows; then you, again with a measurable difference from your fellow; then significantly trailing are the right and the libertarian.

    Would you really sit tight in the expectation that the center-left and your fellow center-right will come back to you, and that you won’t come back to the right and the libertarian in the public’s opinion (you’re up relative to them; you’ll come down)? Or will you alter your messaging technique (not your message) to better reach those currently favoring the center-left?

    Will you not use the data to understand why the guy who looks like you is polling importantly better than you?

    Eric Hines

  4. Pollcatter says:

    Tysver is intuitively correct. Voters poll differently when they are mulling over candidates then when they visualize themselves entering a polling booth. And the pivototals tend to decide last.

    When an individual shifts from search mode to acquisition, it’s like the difference between social dating and proposing marriage. The processes behind it are often not at all the same.

    Chatting about candidates has an unreal air about it that can shift dramatically when decision time comes. And the closer an election is to a tie, the more the decision is made by those least involved who are last to decide.

    It is not party regulars and donors who throw the tie breaker but the least partisan, least informed, least interested and most volatile and ungrounded who barely manages to vote in that election. And they are the last to make up their mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.