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Polling that was right on the money

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Both campaigns in the 26th Congressional District race, as was revealed on their expenditure reports, spent a lot of money on polling. But, unfortunately for someone whose job is to publicly report political information, both camps were extremely tight-lipped about what their polling revealed.

But there was one notable exception: Back in July, the campaign of Julia Brownley released a memo detailing the highlights of a poll conducted by Ben Tulchin and Ben Krompak of the firm Tulchin Research.

I reported on its findings at the time, then took the polling memo and tucked it inside my calendar on the page for this week. I thought it would be interesting to check how accurately it reflected the actual voter sentiment that would be expressed on Election Day.

It turns out that Tulchin's poll was dead-on accurate. It showed Brownley leading Republican Tony Strickland by 4 percentage points. And the actual result in November: With a few votes yet to be counted, Brownley beat Strickland by exactly 4 percentage points, 52 percent to 48 percent. The same poll indicated that Barack Obama would carry the district by 5 percentage points; it looks like the actual outcome will show that he won it by about 7 points.

Last week, since I received them before he did, I shared with Brownley strategist Lenny Young the vote breakdown in the district's two largest cities, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks. He had told me earlier that day that he believed Tulchin's polling, which drilled down into measuring voter sentiment even at the city level, had been right on the money. After I sent him the actual numbers, he sent a reply that still did not reveal the details of the campaign's pre-election polling, but did note that, "Ben Tulchin is indeed a very good pollster."

On the other hand, I had been led to believe during the campaign that the Strickland camp felt its polling showed him to be ahead. At one point over the summer, they acknowledged as much, without providing any details. In his remarks at a Westlake Village fundraiser with House Majority Leader .Eric Cantor two weeks before the election, Strickland told his supporters that his polling showed him with a sizeable lead among independents (I was able to obtain a tape-recording of those remarks).

Reporting on political campaigns puts a reporter in a unique position. You get to know the candidates and their political staff fairly well, you develop a high level of interest in the campaign and yet, unlike everyone else involved, you don't care who wins. As a consequence, after the election is over you generally feel badly for those who have invested so much time and energy into the effort but fell short.

I always feel particularly badly for those candidates who lost when they genuinely believed, based on their polling, that they were going to win (as appears to have been the case with Mitt Romney). My guess is that Strickland fell into that category.

Polling is not an easy science. People don't particularly like to answer their phones; you have to objectively and artfully frame your questions; you have to get an appropriate mix of people over both landlines and cell phones; in a district like this, you have to sample an appropriate number of people using bilingual or Spanish-language personnel. You have to train and rely on polltakers who are not always particularly well paid or educated. You have to made good evaluations as to who is likely to vote and who is not. You have to make educated estimates about what the partisan make-up of the actual electorate will be. It ain't easy.

But the value of good polling is immense. And in this campaign, it appears that one camp had some very good polling to guide its decisions about how and where to devote its resources.

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95 percent accurate
Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at therdt@vcstar.com
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