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The media’s near obsession with polling has clearly influenced the trajectory of some contests. If polls look good for a candidate, it can electrify fundraising and grass-roots support and cast an aura of victory that has been proved to have a subtle effect on voters. Poor survey results can have the exact opposite effect on a campaign. Very aware of this, campaigns have sometimes quite obviously used favorable polls as political weapons.
For example, the Indiana Senate race appeared to be a lock for GOP nominee Richard Mourdock until Democrats began to release their own internal polls showing a competitive challenge from Rep. Joe Donnelly. Public polls have since shown Donnelly’s viability. Now, Roll Call rates that race as a Tossup.
Beyond providing water cooler talk, polling at its core is about data. Political strategists want accurate surveys because it gives them valuable demographic data that tell them which voting blocs need to be targeted for early and absentee voting as well as how to tailor a candidate’s message so that it has the greatest effect.
For Congressional campaign committees that oversee dozens of races, accurate polling is critical to determining how best to deploy resources that are often limited. Guy Harrison, who is finishing up his second term as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said conducting an accurate poll has become more difficult in recent years.
“I think for the past three cycles, polling has been a concern across the board for political operatives,” he said.
Topping Harrison’s list of the challenges is the difficulty in connecting with legitimate respondents who can provide an accurate snapshot of a race or a district’s demographic makeup, the continued increase in cellphone usage by voters and redistricting, which made polling tougher to trust this cycle because in many cases there was no historical data to compare it to.
At the heart of the 2012 polling controversy — and the challenge for political strategists — has been which turnout model to settle on. Much of the public polling appears to have assumed that the Democrats will turn out in numbers similar to 2008, when Obama won a big Electoral College victory and his party swamped Republican turnout by 8 points nationally — its best showing in a generation.
Harrison said the NRCC believes Democratic-vs.-Republican turnout will be a hybrid of 2008 and 2004, when President George W. Bush won re-election on the strength of a marked GOP enthusiasm advantage.
“This cycle, there was a problem for both parties because the baseline from 2004 and 2008 was so drastically different,” he said.