Yesterday, Harry Reid received his best public polling numbers of the cycle in a new poll from DailyKos/Research2000. Not only is he leading in general election matchups against all three major Republican nominee contenders, but the weakest Republican candidate in the general election (Sharron Angle) leads the Republican primary field in both the DailyKos poll and another survey also released yesterday by Suffolk University. Still, I would like to throw some caution to the wind about the Republican primary and note a couple of key factors we should keep in mind.
1. Nevada's population grew by 32.3% from 2000 to 2009. Primary polling is notoriously challenging (see Tuesday's Alabama Democratic Gubernatorial primary) mostly because nailing down the likely voter population is very difficult. Pollsters try to model likely primary voters based on past history, and Nevada's population growth makes this task all the more difficult.
2. Multi-candidate primaries without an incumbent have produced some surprises so far this year. The Nevada race features three major non-incumbent candidates: Sharron Angle, Sue Lowden, and Danny Tarkanian. The second biggest surprise in Alabama on Tuesday was the strong showing of Robert Bentley in the Republican Gubernatorial primary. He had never registered higher than 10% in a poll, but, pending a recount, finds himself in a runoff with Bradley Byrne. We saw a similarly "strong" performance in Illinois by now Republican nominee for governor Bill Brady.
3. Nevada Republicans like Danny Tarkanian more than any other candidate for Senate. While most analysts have focused on the rise of Angle and fall of Lowden, Tarkanian remains very much in this ball game. It is true that his numbers have flat-lined in the mid 20's, but they also have not fallen. With Lowden's numbers dropping rapidly, she has turned her attention to attacking Angle. The candidate not involved in these attacks is often the one most helped by them.
With all this in mind, I believe it is fair to say that we do know that Sue Lowden is in major trouble. Her horse race trend is ominous, and her net favorable ratings are worst of the three main contenders.
But as they say, the only poll that counts is the one on Tuesday.
USA today / Gallup
5/24-25/10; 1,049 adults, 4% margin of error
mode: Live telephone interviews
As you may know, Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the person nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. Would you like to see the Senate vote in favor of Kagan serving on the Supreme Court, or not?
46% Yes, vote in favor, 32% no, not
I am going to state the obvious: Rasmussen has had more favorable horse race numbers for Republicans this cycle than other pollsters. Why? It could have to do with its likely voter screen, interactive voice response technology, or perhaps, as some have suggested, a more sinister motive to "shape the debate". But something funny has happened in the past four days, Rasmussen's numbers have come back in line in three states.
Indeed, Rasmussen has released polling data that seems to show a Democratic uprising in Rasmussen's polling. In the state of Kentucky, Jack Conway has, in less than two weeks, cut Rand Paul's post-primary lead from 25 (on the prior Rasmussen poll) to 9. In Connecticut, Dick Blumenthal has seen his lead over Linda McMahon grow from 3 to 23 on Rasmussen polling in less than two weeks. Finally, in Missouri, Roy Blunt's 5+ point lead seen in every Rasmussen poll since February has dropped to a statistically insignificant point.
In the case of the first two contests, the shifts are exaggerated because the previous poll done by Rasmussen was fielded in one night less than 24 hours after two very important events: the first New York Times story on Blumenthal's war record on May 17 and Rand Paul winning the Kentucky primary on May 18. However, a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll showed a 15% Blumenthal lead over almost the identical field period as Rasmussen's 3 point Blumenthal advantage poll. While Rasmussen polls in Connecticut and Kentucky taken before these outliers were not as "out there", there was still a Republican house effect in these states and Missouri .
Interestingly, these more friendly Democratic numbers remind me of something that happened during the 2008 election. My friend David Shor, who I am currently working on projects with, documented that Rasmussen had a "summer" reversal of its Republican house effect in 2008. Looking at all polling from presidential, senatorial, gubernatorial, and house races, David found "Rasmussen polls have a statistically significant Pro-Republican house-effect that appears during primary season in the beginning of the year, disappears during the summer, and then very rapidly appears right before the Republican National Convention". His chart catalogs this well, as seen by the higher p-value in the summer months (150 to 70 days). For the less mathematically inclined, the p-value indicates the probability that a difference occurred by chance alone. So p values closer to 0 indicate a very high likelihood that the difference between Rasmussen and other pollsters was real, while a p-value closer to 1 means that any differences are most likely to to random chance.
It is too early to know whether we will see a similar shift in other Rasmussen polling. These are only three polls in three contests and for all I know the next round of polls will show other pollsters moving towards Rasmussen.
CNN / Opinion Research Corporation
5/21-23/10; 1,023 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live telephone interviews
Thinking about the health care bill which was passed into law in April, do you think the changes the new law will make to the country's health care system will be generally good for the country or generally bad for the country?
46% Good, 51% Bad
Do you approve or disapprove of the passage of the health care bill which became law in April?
43% Approve, 56% Disapprove (chart)
It's hard to blog about polling and not comment on last night's surprise outcome in the Democratic primary for Governor in Alabama, although I followed the Alabama contests about as closely as this humorist/blogger watched Sex and the City 2 before reviewing it (which is to say, hardly at all). I won't follow his lead and declare myself "somewhat of an expert" on Alabama politics simply because "I know how to type into a blog," so I'll limit myself to the difficulties of polling in primary elections.
The gist of the Alabama surprise is that the one recent public poll on the race -- a survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters conducted two weeks ago by Research 2000 for Daily Kos -- had Rep. Artur Davis leading primary opponent Ron Sparks by eight percentage points (41% to 33% with 8% for "other" and 18%11% undecided). Other polls conducted earlier, including an internal Davis campaign poll in early May and a PPP survey in March had Davis leading by somewhat larger margins.
But last night, Sparks crushed Davis by a 24-point margin (61% to 37%). Nate Silver quickly tweeted that the polling error on Sparks-Davis margin amounted to the "5th largest error in my database of 4500 polls."
So what might have gone wrong?
First, let's remember that pre-election polling is generally less accurate in primary elections. According to Silver, the top 10 errors in his database all involve primaries (which, he says, are about one fifth of his database). And, as he wrote last week, the average error in primaries (7 points on the margin) is roughly double that of general elections for president (3-4 points).
Much of that difference has to do with greater indecision among voters as compared to general elections, where a majority of voters are anchored to candidates by their party affiliation. Primary campaigns are more likely to communicate to a narrower electorate via channels -- direct mail, endorsements -- that reach voters very late in the campaign and thus add to the polling challenge.
So second, keep in mind that Research 2000 fielded their Alabama poll a full two weeks before election day, a very long time in a primary campaign. If the polling on Virginia's 2009 Democratic primary for governor had stopped two weeks out, the polling errors would have been as big or bigger than in Alabama. Subsequent polling in Virginia still understated Creigh Deeds' ultimate margin of victory, but did show him gaining rapidly, so few were surprised by the outcome. As such, PPP's Tom Jensen is right to argue that more polling in Alabama would likely have lessened last night's surprise.
Third, consider the challenge of polling and "modeling" a primary electorate like the Alabama Democrats. The 324,767 votes counted as of this writing represent slightly less than 10% of the state's eligible adults. Research 2000 used a random-digit-dial sample, which means they had to first obtain a representative sample of adults -- no easy feat when at least a quarter lack landline phones -- and then use screen questions and weighting to approximate the likely electorate.
How representative was their final sample of 400 likely Democratic primary voters? While DailyKos shares a lot of data, when it comes to this sample of likely primary voters, they tell us only that the Democrats were 54% female and 25% African American. They could also tell us about the regional composition of likely Democratic primary voters and the percentage of all adults that they deemed as "likely," but they don't.
Finally, consider Silver's finding that the highest errors in primary elections in his database have occurred in Democratic primaries in the South, particularly in 2008:
Much of this is driven by 2008, when the polls tended to lowball Barack Obama's performance in Southern states. In those primaries, the polls missed by an average of 9.4 points. Outside of those Clinton-Obama contests, the sample size is fairly small: about 35 polls covering roughly 10 Democratic contests. Still, the error on those non-2008 races is above-average: 7.6 points, higher than what its been for Democrats in other regions.
In South Carolina in 2008, we saw that one reason for the lowballing was that Obama's margin was especially understated among African-American voters. In Alabama this year, the error may have been the opposite, that polls either overstated the African-American turnout or Davis' share of the African-American vote. The Birmingham Newsreported last night:
While hard numbers were not yet available late Tuesday, long time observers in Davis' camp said Sparks' victory appears to have been achieved, at least in part, because of low voter turnout among blacks who, unlike two years ago when they showed up in big numbers to vote for Barack Obama, showed no such enthusiasm for Davis on Tuesday.
Either way, something seems to go wrong more often in Democratic primaries in the South with large African American electorates. It may be about the accuracy of the way polls measure vote preferences in these contests or among African American voters, or it may be about how well (or poorly) samples represent the true electorate, but either way, something is off more often.
The best advice I can offer to political junkies is that with primaries, especially when polling is sparse, expect the unexpected.
Update: First, as reader jmartin4s points out in a comment below, Artur Davis had a net negative favorable rating (28% favorable, 34% unfavorable) among likely Democratic primary voters in their survey in March. Davis' favorable rating among likely Democrats in the May Research2000 poll was very different -- 55% favorable, 22% unfavorable. It's very difficult to explain that discrepancy away on the basis of timing, a late trend or question wording; a difference in the representation of the likely electorate is a more likely explanation.
Second, both polls were more consistent in showing Davis with a lead, but only about half the vote, among African-American primary voters (48% to 23% on the PPP poll in March; 54% to 20% on the Research 2000 poll two weeks ago). There was no exit poll, but Tom Schaller has a post up estimating that "Sparks won something approaching half the African-American vote," based on looking at vote returns in counties with heavily African American populations. So for what it's worth, both polls had Davis' ultimate percentage of the black vote about right but vastly understated support for Sparks.
For myriad reasons, the last 48 hours in the Gulf have dealt a devastating blow to the political fortune of the Obama administration. The impact of recent events in that region will certainly be felt in November and perhaps even in 2012. And while the Israeli raid on ships carrying Palestinian activists is getting some attention, the spill is still the biggest story in America this morning.
Not every event or issue has an electoral effect, but our sense is that the Gulf oil spill will. Here is our up-to-the-minute take on events in the Gulf and our assessment of the political implications. As always, while the Gulf oil spill will have an enormously negative impact on wildlife and peoples' livelihoods, our focus is on the political and public relations elements of the catastrophe.
We're now more than 40 days in, and the White House has finally gone into full crisis mode. Last week the President addressed the spill in a press conference and travelled to the region. He took responsibility for virtually everything under the sun. That seemed like the right strategic move until, of course, "top-kill" failed. Now it may prove to be problematic as voters begin to look for somewhere to place blame.
The administration is doing what every good political campaign does: they are lowering expectations. The front page headline above the fold in dozens of newspapers across the country is: "Oil could flow until August." Now you could say that they are accurately and realistically setting expectations, since the relief wells will not be ready until August. But the statement from White House energy and climate advisor Carol Browner tells us that Team Obama does not want another expectations setback like the failed "top-kill." Better to lay out the worst-case scenario and if they do better, great.
The President and his political team were slow to react to this crisis and it may have a lasting public opinion impact. Let's take a quick snapshot of the timeline of this incident:
a. April 20th the oil rig Deepwater Horizon explodes.
b. April 24th oil is found leaking from the well.
c. April 29th Obama speaks publicly for the first time about the spill in the Rose Garden.
d. May 2nd Obama visits the Gulf to inspect response operations.
e. May 28th Obama holds an hour long press conference on the spill.
f. May 29th Obama visits the Gulf again.
It was nine days after the explosion--and five days after the world knew that the well was spewing oil--before the President spoke about the issue. And he didn't travel to the Gulf until 12 days after the explosion. It was more than a month before Obama held a full news conference to answer questions on the crisis. There is no doubt that the White House underestimated and underplayed the incident for its first few weeks. The result was the prevailing impression that Obama was disengaged. Of course, it is possible that Obama may be able to correct this impression.
At this point in time, voter attitudes toward the President's handling of the Gulf oil spill are mixed. The following chart shows voter evaluation of Bush's handling of Katrina thirty days after the hurricane and reactions to Obama's handling of the spill in a comparable time frame.
As you can see, the Gallup poll in particular suggests that voters are starting to view the President's handling of the spill in a negative light. The coming days will be critical in terms of cementing or reversing this opinion.
The short-term problem for Democrats is that the Gulf crisis drives down Obama's approval rating, the long-term issue for the President is that it diminishes one of the core reasons people voted for him: competence. There is no shortage of blog posts and op-eds on this point. Obama was supposed to be the "anti-Bush," the competency guy. He may not be emotional but he is smart and will know how to get things done. Well, his reaction to the Gulf oil spill seems to suggest otherwise. Now, for all we know the President had a multitude of discussions with his team about the issue and probably was monitoring and managing it from the start. However, a large segment of the voting public does not have that impression and in the end, that is what counts.
This is not Katrina and Obama is not Bush. Look, it is interesting to compare the two because of the geographic proximity but they are very different Presidents at very different points in their presidencies. Bush was one year into his second term and his approval rating (in the low 40's) had been eroding for more than a year due to Iraq War fatigue. Bush's slow and distant reaction to the human toll in Louisiana suggested that he didn't care, taking away the one attribute some voters still ascribed to him. Katrina was the tipping point and Bush's approval rating fell into the 30's and never recovered. Obama is 18 months into his first term and his approval rating - though not great - is in the high 40's. So while Katrina was a tipping point for Bush, the Gulf oil spill may be a turning point for Obama.
Team Obama has something that Bush never had with Katrina: a villain. A large international oil company. What better villain could you ask for? Team Obama will maximize this to its political advantage over the coming weeks. With Katrina, Bush was the villain.
Remember, it is not usually the event that kills a President's approval rating; it is the reaction. Bush couldn't prevent the hurricane but voters thought the government's reaction was terrible. Time will tell whether the public believes that the Obama administration handled the aftermath to the oil spill well.
At this point in time, there is little evidence that Obama's job rating has suffered substantial erosion because of the spill. While it may emerge over time, so far there is little sign of a negative effect on Obama's overall job approval: over the past month he has been consistently around the 47%-48% mark among registered voters. As we have said before, the economy is still far and away the number one issue for voters, and perceptions of it has far more impact on Obama's approval rating than the Gulf spill - at this point in time. The current unemployment rate is 9.9%. The main economic event this week is the May payrolls report. Most economists are forecasting 500,000 new jobs and the unemployment dropping .01 to 9.8%. Will that be seen as enough improvement? Doubtful.
The saturated media coverage of the oil spill is reaching historic proportions and that means all eyes will be on POTUS. In September of 2005, 58% of the public was watching the Katrina crisis "very closely." According to a Gallup poll taken a week ago, the Gulf oil spill was already up to 47%. The 3-D graphics of the "Top Kill" have dominated cable news shows and the impact on the views of Americans outside the media echo chamber is just beginning to become known. They are certainly aware of it, with The Economist reporting that 73% of adults have heard or read "a lot." And we are in an environment where distrust of government and corporations are both at record highs, so this disaster will become part of the "narrative of failure" of public institutions in the same way that Fannie and Lehman have. But right now, most of the impact appears to be on BP, not the administration. A Pew poll found that 26% of voters feel that the Obama administration has done a "poor" job and 44% think that BP has done poorly.
The spill takes the President "off message" and further diminishes Democratic efforts to forge a winning agenda for the Fall elections. This maybe one of the most significant problems for the President and Democrats. The spill will likely suck the oxygen out of the room for at least the next 30-60 days at a time when Democrats need the focus to be on their legislative agenda.
If nothing else, the Gulf oil spill will be a significant blow to future offshore drilling development along our coasts, much as Three Mile Island affected the domestic nuclear industry. The effect on public opinion is already dramatic; fewer than half of all Americans now support expanded offshore drilling.
The Gulf oil spill is likely to have dramatic political effect in the weeks ahead. And once we are swamped with videos of oil-soaked seabirds and ruined beaches, all bets are off.
CNN / Opinion Research Corporation
5/21-23/10; 1,023 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live telephone interviews
As you may know, Elena Kagan is the person nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. Would you like to see the Senate vote in favor of Kagan serving on the Supreme Court, or not?
54% Vote in favor, 36% Not vote in favor
Based on what you have heard or read about Elena Kagan, do you think she is among the most qualified people who could serve on the Supreme Court, is she qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, but many others are more qualified, or is she not qualified to serve on the Supreme Court?
15% Most qualified
19% Not qualified
From what you know about Elena Kagan, as a Supreme Court Justice, do you think she would be too liberal, too conservative, or just about right?
40% Too liberal, 6% Too conservative, 50% About right
My column for this week examines a minor oddity some have noted elsewhere: Why has automated pollster Rasmussen Reports done less final-weekend pre-election polling so far in 2010 than at this point in 2008? Please click through and read the whole thing.