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After Elections, Pollsters Take Stock

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Polls consistently showed Tester trailing in his bid for re-election, but he was victorious on Election Day.

A Republican operative who worked on congressional races this past cycle was more blunt, saying his party’s data was often wrong in contests where the Hispanic or youth voters, or both, were factors. Where a race was largely decided by the white vote, GOP data tended to be reliable, said this operative, who declined to speak on the record in order to provide a candid assessment of the surveys produced by GOP pollsters.

However, in states with small populations of ethnic minority voters, such as Montana and North Dakota, Republican pollsters surveying Senate races still misfired, which Democratic and GOP strategists have suggested was a result of failing to include the right mix of other key demographics in their turnout models, such as gender and age.

Even reliable public pollsters fared poorly in their reading of the electorate. Gallup, considered the gold standard among public pollsters, projected a Nov. 6 electorate substantially more favorable to Republicans than actually showed up.

Mark Mellman, who polled for Senate Democrats in Montana and North Dakota, said the public polls that consistently showed Republicans in the lead in those races might have been too dependent on “likely voter” screens, and thus gave a false impression to political observers that Tester and Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., were behind when in fact they were ahead heading into Election Day. “You’re never going to have an electorate exclusively made up of likely voters,” Mellman said.

Republican pollster David Winston, who advises House and Senate Republicans, also is suspicious of relying on “likely voter” screens in surveys, and said the misjudgments of the public pollsters could stem from their decision to exclude too many minorities and young voters from their turnout models. Winston said he prefers to rely on “registered voter” screens in his polling.

In losing to President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney’s campaign badly miscalculated the partisan, ethnic and demographic composition of the electorate. To the extent Romney’s pollsters — considered among the best — and others misunderstood voter turnout, Winston suggested that not enough was done to question turnout assumptions, such as that GOP enthusiasm and winning independents would equal victory on Election Day.

“Without situation awareness how do you make good decisions?” Winston asked, adding that the Obama campaign did a much better job of analyzing its data in order to refine it and find flaws.

Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz, whose partner Joel Benenson polled for the Obama campaign, said he believes Democratic pollsters were more successful than their Republican counterparts because they had a better grasp of the voting population, suggesting that Republican pollsters appear to have failed to detect a shift in percentages among the various demographics that benefitted the president and other Democratic candidates.

Brodnitz said that he and other Democratic pollsters rigorously challenged their data, particularly when it was favorable to their candidates, and indicated this gave his party an advantage in forecasting turnout. Brodnitz polled for Virginia Sen.-elect Tim Kaine, and often found higher levels of African Americans who were coming up as likely to vote — about 18 percent — than he thought was reasonable, which led him to weight their turnout at 16 percent, despite the fact that they comprised about 20 percent of the commonwealth’s electorate in 2008.

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