Polls consistently showed Tester trailing in his bid for re-election, but he was victorious on Election Day.
Driven by an unprecedented volume of polling that often proved unreliable and contradictory, even victorious Democrats lost sleep over the reliability of their data in the closing weeks of the 2012 campaign.
Guy Cecil, executive director of a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that helped the party gain two Senate seats on a treacherous playing field, ultimately trusted his party’s numbers. But down the stretch of close races in Republican-leaning states, facing nearly complete opposite findings touted by competing GOP campaigns, he would hold private calls with his pollsters.
“I spent a lot of time with pollsters,” Cecil told Roll Call this week. “We would do the campaign call where everyone is on the call, or we would do it on our side, and then usually afterward I would call them up myself. I would set up a separate call, where I would just say I need you to explain — I obviously didn’t know what the specifics of the Republican numbers were, but I knew just from talking to everybody that they were much more optimistic — and I think genuinely optimistic — about places like North Dakota.”
In multiple Senate contests Republicans lost, including open seats in North Dakota and Indiana and their challenge of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the survey data gathered by GOP pollsters for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and their candidate clients turned out to be flat wrong. A similar problem afflicted some Republican House candidates, although for them and the National Republican Congressional Committee — which easily held its majority — the issue was less pronounced.
The Republican campaign committees and GOP political strategists have been hesitant to criticize the party’s pollsters directly, either on background or on the record. But privately, they concede feelings from disappointment to outright hostility, depending on the race in question. But at least some Republican pollsters have acknowledged that they missed the mark, at least as a community if not as individual consultants. Public Opinion Strategies, among the premiere Republican polling firms, said as much this week.
“There is no question that the 2012 election was challenging for pollsters,” according to a memorandum it released Monday. “The number of assumptions that must be made has increased significantly: including enough cell phone interviews, ensuring that younger voters are represented in a sample like they are in the electorate, projecting the white and minority percents of the electorate, and having the right partisan mix are all tough calls.”
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.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.