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Masschusetts: Poll Coverage and Dissonant Ads

Topics: Cognitive dissonance , Martha Coakley , Massachusetts , Scott Brown , Suffolk University poll

This morning, I'm sure of only one thing about the Massachusetts Senate race: The perception among Massachusetts voters that Democrat Martha Coakley is likely to defeat Republican Scott Brown, is not long for this world. Even the newly released Suffolk University poll shows that by a better than two-to-one margin (64% to 26%) Massachusetts still believe Coakley will win. But since Suffolk is a local University, uses live interviewers and has the Boston Herald and Boston's NBC affiliate as sponsors, their finding that Brown leads Coakley by a not quite statistically significant four points (50% to 46%) is huge news in Massachusetts this morning.

2010-01-15-GreatScott

In addition to the Herald front page, the poll was also the big story on all of the local Boston television stations last night or this morning (online video available as of this writing at WCVB-5, WHDH-7, WFXT-25, WBZ-38). Watch those stories, and its hard to imagine that perceptions of a likely Coakley victory will survive the weekend. If you are a Democrat, that is probably the only silver lining in today's news.

On the other hand, the tone of these stories follows the all too typical pattern of political news coverage: an analytical focus on strategy and tactics: "What happened to Coakley's lead?" "Why is Brown surging?" In assessing tactics, they inevitably praise Brown's efforts ("Brown has been out-hustling Coakley on the campaign trail"), while dissecting the apparent failures of the Coakley campaign. If "momentum" is a factor in campaign politics, this sort of coverage is a big reason why.

Another troubling pattern for Democrats: To the extent that these stories discuss the negative advertising being run by Coakley and her Democratic allies this week, it is only as a possible explanation for her poll numbers. The WBZ story, for example, cites callers to local talk radio and emails to the station complaining about negative ads. The WBZ anchor then concludes:

That is the combination of [Coakley's] problems, visibility and negativity. You can go negative, political ads work, political consultants always say that, but only if the voter knows exactly who you are, so at this point, since there is this perception that she hasn't been out there hustling as much...since voters don't know who she is, all they see from her is negativity at this point, and at the 11th hour, that's tough to overcome.

That's not quite right. Negative advertising works when voters see its message as credible. Ad buys as heavy as the combined efforts of the Coakley campaign, the DSCC and SEIU have undoubtedly been noticed and, as such, will create some cognitive dissonance among voters still leaning to Brown. The big question is how those voters resolve the dissonance. If they come to accept the arguments the ads are making as valid, some may back away from supporting Brown. But cognitive dissonance theory says that denial and rationalization are more powerful instincts than acceptance, so it is easier for voters who already like Brown to dismiss the content of the ads as typical political "mudslinging."

The key to resolving that dissonance is the way the news media covers the campaign: If news stories focus on the substance of the ads and the debate between the candidates, there is a greater chance that the ads will have an impact. If coverage focuses on tactics alone -- as horse race stories inevitably do -- the ads are more likely to fail.

One last thing about the Suffolk Poll. One astute Pollster reader emails with a question: The poll asks "if you know when the election is (and terminates the interview if you don't have the right answer). Is that unusual for special elections?"

That question is a little unusual, in my experience, but in fairness to the Suffolk University pollsters, there really is no "usual" with likely voter screens, especially in special elections. Selecting likely voters is really where political polling is more art than science. To make matters worse, pollsters do not typically reveal the full text of their screen questions, so give the Suffolk pollsters credit for being fully transparent on that score.

I think their screen is reasonable. After all, you're not very likely to vote if you don't know the election is next week [UPDATE: but see the contrary view of reader Dan below]. The classic Gallup likely voter model includes a similar question about knowledge of your voting location (although that is just one item in a seven question scale). I would question the Suffolk screen if I believed that the Coakley campaign was poised to mount a massive weekend get-out-the-vote effort aimed to reminding identified supporters about where and when they vote. By most accounts, that is not likely.

 

Comments

I looked at the data on the Suffolk poll and found a couple of oddities. They did not say how many registered voters they actually polled, but rather said that of the 500 reported included in the survey, that 90% were definite to vote, and 10% were very likely. That would mean they threw out every other registered voter, since you would obviously never get 100% turnout of registered voters.

We know from earlier surveys, from Ras and from the Globe, that people in the "less likely to vote" category were overwhelmingly in favor of Coakley. Suffolk shows no data relating to this universe.

Also, in their age breakdowns, they show only 4% of the voting populace as being in the 18-24 group and another 7% at 24-35, but 11% being 'over 75.' Is is plausible that the voting universe would have the same number of people between 18 & 35 as it would for those 'over 75'?

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Dan:

I've been in market research for over 25 years and never heard of a 'term' on the question of knowing when the election takes place. While it can be seen as a reasonable proxy for likelihood to vote, a wrong answer can also be due to an honest error attributable to the uniqueness of the election, where someone mis-remembers (to steal from Roger) while really intending to vote. That person will likely come to realize when the election is at some point and still vote. By contrast, the motivated underdog supporter(Tea Partier?) has probably marked the date on their calendar months ago. It would seem to make more sense to continue the interview and then cut the data by those who knew the exact date for one analysis, while still being able to analyze what could happen if people came to know when the election was held. Research 2000 did a similar poll (N=500) of likely voters a day later, and while I don't know their screen, they have Coakley up 49-41. Could this be because all of the media hype was quickly making people more aware of the election timing? In any event, I don't think you have to rely on the Coakley campaign to make people aware of the election date. The frenzied media circus and high profile appearances for both candidates will do that very nicely, and that is likely changing the whole dynamic.

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Dan:

In response to nelcon, I did an analysis of the Suffolk Poll and the Research 2000 age distribution versus the Mass. Census data projections for 2010. While there would be an expected difference because of the 'likely voter' requirement (a skew to older people), the Suffolk Poll is way off, while the Research 2000 is much closer.

Census –Suffolk-Diff.
18 to 24-10%-4%-6%
25 to 34-17%-7%-10%
35 to 44-19%-20%-(1%)
45 to 54-21%-23%-(2%)
55 to 64-16%-23%-(7%)
65 to 74-9%-13%-(4%)
75 plus-8%-11%-(3%)

Census-Res2000-Diff.
18 to 29-19%-16%-3%
30 to 44-27%-25%-2%
45 to 59-29%-41%-(12%)
60 plus-24%-18%-6%

Suffolk severly under-represents younger voters compared to the Research 2000 poll. This is critical because in both polls, middle age voters (45-60) support Brown, while younger voters (mid thirties and younger) support Coakley.

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Just to put my last post into perspective, I looked up the exit polling for the 2008 election and found that the 18-35 group accounted for about 33% of the electorate, while 'over 65' was 13%, let alone a number of 'over 75.'

Also, the African American electorate was 9% in 2008 and shows at 4% in Suffolk, while Asians and Hispanics were 8% and show a total of 5% in Suffolk.

Just an add-on on the age determination. Could it be with the enormous college age population in Boston metro (Harvard, MIT, BU, BC, Northeastern, Brandeis, etc.) that only 4% of the total vote next Tuesday comes from 18-24s?

Also, on the geo splits, according to the 2008 exit polls, Boston metro contributed 33% to the MA total, while other Eastern areas were another 26%. Suffolk only gives 35% to the entire NE area. The west was just 9% compared with the Suffolk poll showing 24% of the electorate. Also, the Cape area in Suffolk shows 33%, while in 2008 it was 23%.

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GARY WAGNER:

The Suffolk poll is of likely voters. The 18 to 29 year olds are the most unlikely to vote next Tuesday. That age group rarely votes in off-year, and especially special elections. In the Virginia and New Jersey elections in November, the turnout from this age group was only 17%. That would put this poll right in line with the reality of off-year elections.

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poughies:

The Winning Scott Brown Party ID Coalition Seen in the Brand New Suffolk Poll
Politics is one of the best examples of the phrase "history repeats itself". As I illustrated last night, Public Policy Polling is betting on this phrase with concern to its turnout model for the Massachusetts Special Senatorial Election (http://poughies.blogspot.com/2010/01/party-id-and-massachusetts-senate.html). But history is not just limited to turnout, people's voting habits are also relatively consistent. That is, the people inclined to vote for a Democratic candidate in one election are much more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate the next election than a person who voted for a Republican candidate (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035262). At the same time, swing voters (those who could vote for either party's candidate) tend to be consistently swing voters. With this idea in mind, we should expect that in order for Republican Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts, he will need to put to together a similar coalition as those past Republicans who won statewide.
Unfortunately for our analysis and Republicans, Massachusetts' Republicans rarely win statewide races and have not won a Senate election since 1972 (making a Brown win all the more unbelievable). The last time a Republican won a statewide election in Massachusetts and an exit poll is available was 1998. In that year, Republican Paul Cellucci defeated Democrat Scott Harshbarger 50.8% to 47.4%, nearly identical to the 50%-46% Republican Scott Brown holds in the latest Suffolk University poll. The question we should be asking is "does this make sense?" Do the internals (what percentage of the electorate certain groups of voters make up and how these groups of voters are voting) match up with what we would expect Brown would need to win in 2010?
The first statistic we need to look is whether Suffolk seems to be projecting what I outlined as the most likely turnout model. Note that Suffolk's poll asks party identification in a different way than exit polls, but I have previously pointed out that this should not affect the polls results (/blogs/massachusetts_polls_divergent.html#comment-113575). Suffolk's poll expects 39% of the electorate will be registered Democrats, 44% undeclared (roughly independent), and 15% Republican. This coalition is almost identical to the turnout seen in 1998. I personally expect the turnout will be slightly more Democratic and Republican and slightly less Independent.
What about the vote among among these demographics? In 1998, Cellucci won the election with 23% of the Democratic vote, 61% of the Independent vote, and 85% of the Republican vote (http://web.archive.org/web/20000926024607/www.cnn.com/ELECTION/1998/states/MA/G/exit.poll.html). What about Scott Brown? Brown's locked up 17% of the Democratic vote, 65% of the Independent vote, and 91% of the Republican vote. These coalitions are very close. The reasons for these slight differences can easily be explained by a number of factors including margin of error, which is anywhere from 6.5% for the independent subgroup to 11.3% for the Republican subgroup in the Suffolk poll. Another contributing factor is that the 2010 electorate is simply more polarized because Democrats love Obama and Republicans hate him, and this vote is largely seen as a referendum on a Democratic Presidential administration.
Finally I wondered what happens if we apply my expected turnout among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to the expected votes among these groups in the Suffolk poll? Brown's lead drops, but he still is favored 49%-47%.
As I said last night, Brown should be considered the favorite.

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poughies:

The Winning Scott Brown Party ID Coalition Seen in the Brand New Suffolk Poll
Politics is one of the best examples of the phrase "history repeats itself". As I illustrated last night, Public Policy Polling is betting on this phrase with concern to its turnout model for the Massachusetts Special Senatorial Election (http://poughies.blogspot.com/2010/01/party-id-and-massachusetts-senate.html). But history is not just limited to turnout, people's voting habits are also relatively consistent. That is, the people inclined to vote for a Democratic candidate in one election are much more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate the next election than a person who voted for a Republican candidate (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035262). At the same time, swing voters (those who could vote for either party's candidate) tend to be consistently swing voters. With this idea in mind, we should expect that in order for Republican Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts, he will need to put to together a similar coalition as those past Republicans who won statewide.
Unfortunately for our analysis and Republicans, Massachusetts' Republicans rarely win statewide races and have not won a Senate election since 1972 (making a Brown win all the more unbelievable). The last time a Republican won a statewide election in Massachusetts and an exit poll is available was 1998. In that year, Republican Paul Cellucci defeated Democrat Scott Harshbarger 50.8% to 47.4%, nearly identical to the 50%-46% Republican Scott Brown holds in the latest Suffolk University poll. The question we should be asking is "does this make sense?" Do the internals (what percentage of the electorate certain groups of voters make up and how these groups of voters are voting) match up with what we would expect Brown would need to win in 2010?

____________________

poughies:

The Winning Scott Brown Party ID Coalition Seen in the Brand New Suffolk Poll
Politics is one of the best examples of the phrase "history repeats itself". As I illustrated last night, Public Policy Polling is betting on this phrase with concern to its turnout model for the Massachusetts Special Senatorial Election (http://poughies.blogspot.com/2010/01/party-id-and-massachusetts-senate.html). But history is not just limited to turnout, people's voting habits are also relatively consistent. That is, the people inclined to vote for a Democratic candidate in one election are much more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate the next election than a person who voted for a Republican candidate (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035262). At the same time, swing voters (those who could vote for either party's candidate) tend to be consistently swing voters. With this idea in mind, we should expect that in order for Republican Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts, he will need to put to together a similar coalition as those past Republicans who won statewide.
Unfortunately for our analysis and Republicans, Massachusetts' Republicans rarely win statewide races and have not won a Senate election since 1972 (making a Brown win all the more unbelievable). The last time a Republican won a statewide election in Massachusetts and an exit poll is available was 1998. In that year, Republican Paul Cellucci defeated Democrat Scott Harshbarger 50.8% to 47.4%, nearly identical to the 50%-46% Republican Scott Brown holds in the latest Suffolk University poll. The question we should be asking is "does this make sense?" Do the internals (what percentage of the electorate certain groups of voters make up and how these groups of voters are voting) match up with what we would expect Brown would need to win in 2010?

____________________

poughies:

The first statistic we need to look is whether Suffolk seems to be projecting what I outlined as the most likely turnout model. Note that Suffolk's poll asks party identification in a different way than exit polls, but I have previously pointed out that this should not affect the polls results (/blogs/massachusetts_polls_divergent.html#comment-113575). Suffolk's poll expects 39% of the electorate will be registered Democrats, 44% undeclared (roughly independent), and 15% Republican. This coalition is almost identical to the turnout seen in 1998. I personally expect the turnout will be slightly more Democratic and Republican and slightly less Independent.
What about the vote among among these demographics? In 1998, Cellucci won the election with 23% of the Democratic vote, 61% of the Independent vote, and 85% of the Republican vote (http://web.archive.org/web/20000926024607/www.cnn.com/ELECTION/1998/states/MA/G/exit.poll.html). What about Scott Brown? Brown's locked up 17% of the Democratic vote, 65% of the Independent vote, and 91% of the Republican vote. These coalitions are very close. The reasons for these slight differences can easily be explained by a number of factors including margin of error, which is anywhere from 6.5% for the independent subgroup to 11.3% for the Republican subgroup in the Suffolk poll. Another contributing factor is that the 2010 electorate is simply more polarized because Democrats love Obama and Republicans hate him, and this vote is largely seen as a referendum on a Democratic Presidential administration.

____________________

poughies:

Finally I wondered what happens if we apply my expected turnout among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to the expected votes among these groups in the Suffolk poll? Brown's lead drops, but he still is favored 49%-47%.
As I said last night, Brown should be considered the favorite.

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poughies:

what a mess with the comments, it wasn't approving and then it did. My bad. :(

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poughies:

As for the age question and research 2000, I think it isn't wise to use 2010 census data. As your post acknowledges, Census data will be different than election turnout. Look at the 2006 exit poll (NJ and VA in 09 matched very well to their 06 model... except it was a little more Republican in 09).

In that Research 2000 poll, 16% of the electorate was 18-29 year olds. In the 2006 electorate, 11% was. In the Research 2000 poll, 25% of the electorate was 30-44 year old. In 2006, it was 23%. In the research 2000 poll, 41% of the electorate was 45-59 year olds. In the 2006 exit polls, it was 35%. In the research 2000 poll, 18% of the electorate was 60+ year olds. In the exit polls, it was 32%.

If you think the 06 poll was an anomaly for an midterm year... Look at the last time we have an exit poll from a midterm...

18-29: 12% 30-44:30% 45-59:30% 60+:28%

Bottom line older voters turn out for midtems... those 18-29 years... They prefer to stay the heck home.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14350180/ns/politics-2006_election_results/

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Dan:

That is why I benchmarked both against the census, to see which would have a more reasonable variance from that standard, taking into account 1) lower registered voter incidence among younger people and 2) lower stated likelihood to vote among younger people. Remember, both surveys screened for registered and likelihood to vote. And while both show a skew to older people being registered and likely to vote, the Research 2000 had a more reasonable variance. Look at the Suffolk Poll variance. It is enormous! The fact that the Research 2000 poll aligns as closely to the 2006 data reinforces that it is likely to be mnore representative as a current snapshot.

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poughies:

I'm not sure how you are doing the conversions with the Suffolk data because the year breakdowns are very different... Suffolk doesn't have an 18-29 age group... nor does it have a 30-44... nor does it have a In fact the only group that you can compare are 65+ or 45+.

45+ in the 2006 exit polls it was 67%... In the Suffolk poll it was 70%. This difference would be expected, if we are expecting a slightly more Republican turnout (as we saw in NJ and VA).

It was only 59% in the Research 2000.

Unfortunately, we don't know how those age groups voted because it isn't broken down by Suffolk.

I'm not seeing how the Research 2000 poll more closely aligns with the 2006 data. Though I've been wrong before.

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poughies:

nor does it have a 45-59 group is what I meant to type.

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poughies:
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Risa Kaplan:

just a note: some of the colleges here in Ma have not gone back to school. So students who are registered to vote in Ma but don't live here probably won't vote.

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Farleftandproud:

The age gap that some think is a trend still isn't as true in Mass as in other states. Scott Brown may get some younger voters and Coakley some older voters. The younger voters really don't know enough about the importance to vote, and Coakley doesn't excite them. I think Coakley will pull it off. As far as the polling on this race, I would give it an F. For a state with a lot of universities as Mass I am disappointed in the lack of accuracy. I think no matter how this turns out, some pollsters will take the heat for misinformation. I hope and pray that will be PPP and Rasmussen.

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Farleftandproud:

Nothing will be certified for at least 20 days after the election. Lots of absentee votes to count, and the house and senate will bust their butts to pass health care. Scott Brown will need lots of security if he becomes senator, because he will have a lot of wrath from the public if he is as conservative as the guy he has campaigned as. He'll have a hard time in Mass.

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Tom:

I wonder what the polls estimate as the voter turnout? Firstread at MSNBC noted that voter turnout could be high, which usually would help Brown but in this case if it gets to high, he may run into his ceiling (there are only so many Republicans and independants who would vote for Brown). Furthermore, Boston has a strong Democratic machine, and machine politics works best in these types of elections. The LV screens seem to be assuming a low turnout election, which may not be the case anymore with heavy advertising and press coverage "educating" people about the election.

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Tom, I've been wondering the same thing. The early polls, Ras and UNH were assuming a turnout of 32-35% of registered voters. The 2008 election drew 75% of registered voters. Given the current massive publicity about this election and its importance -- to both parties -- it wouldn't surprise me to see a turnout of 50-60% of registered voters, about what you get in Mass. in Congressional years.

Of the 4.2 million registered voters in the State, at a 60% turnout (2.5 million votes), it is assumed that a GOP candidate has a top line maximum of about 900,000 votes. Given the anti-incumbent fervor now in vogue, maybe we raise that to about 1.1 million. That would give Coakley probably 1.3-1.4 million votes at that turnout.

At 50%, you'd probably put Brown at 1 million, giving a much narrower win for Coakley. Under 50% and Brown might eke out a win.

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