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Another Meaningless Virginia Poll

I just got a tweet about a new poll in Virginia showing Terry McAuliffe with a 5 point lead over Ken Cuccinelli. A five point difference actually means something since the poll has a margin of error of only 2.7 points. Good news considering the dispiriting (from my point of view) Washington Post results last week. However, this poll sheds no light on who is ahead and who is not.

Among the 1286 interviewed, McAuliffe leads 43%-38%. OK. Great. However, this was asked to the universe of registered voters. Assuming it is accurate of registered voters, since only 40% of them are going to show up, who leads among real voters? I have no idea and neither does Quinnipiac.

It is good that there is more data out there challenging the existing “Terry is losing!!!!” narrative but that is all this poll is good for. Nothing else.

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Virginia Voters Prove Far Smarter than Members of Congress

On the two issues most pressing in the United States Congress – the mindless across the board spending cuts that they call the “sequester” to confuse us, and keeping people safer from guns, voters in Virginia exhibit far more common sense than some of the people who represent them.

On the mindless cuts:

Almost half — 49% — think these cuts will mostly hurt the economy. 18% think the across-the-board cuts will help the economy, and 26% think they will have no impact. Eight percent are unsure.

On gun violence:

55% of Virginia residents think laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter than they are now. Six percent say they should be less strict while 36% think they should be kept as they are. Three percent are unsure.

So what does Congress do – make it easier for them to fly home while doing nothing for people like kids in Head Start, and failing to pass a bipartisan measure to perform background checks on people buying guns. (Kudos to Tim Kaine and Mark Warner for voting for background checks).

There is a false perception that politicians just stick their finger in the air and vote the way polls tell them. If only that would be the case, the country would be far better off than it currently is.

The Flaws with Virginia Public Polls

The hardest thing to do in any election that isn’t presidential is determining who is going to vote and who isn’t. As a pollster, what drives me crazy when a poll I do is off from the final election results comes a few months later when I go back and see who in the poll told me they were “definitely” going to vote. I usually find that the definites were no more likely to have actually voted that those who said they were “probably” going to vote. I have tightened my calling and sampling so that I am calling mostly people who have voted in previous election years since that is the best way to determine future voting. This is especially important in odd year elections and primaries.

Virginia is a strange state. We have elections every year and don’t have gubernatorial elections when we elect the President or Senator. Some years my activist wife and I are happy and other years we are not. 2008 was the cap on a strong 4 year run and then 2009 happened. 2012 was great but who knows from 2013 when half the number of people are going to vote than did in 2012. Digging into the Washington Post and Marist/NBC polls for the Governor’s race, we see that Republican Ken Cuccinelli does better with “almost certain to vote” people and “likely voters”. That is usually the case as Republicans do better the smaller the electorate. The problem with these polls is that their pool of likely or certain voters is too large and we don’t know from those interviews, who really will vote and who won’t.

Both companies do random digit dialing samples. That is considered the best way to poll but has drawbacks. 1) People don’t know whether they will vote or not, and 2) there is no way to verify against a voter file. The advantage is that there is a larger pool of potential respondents if you call unlisted numbers and cell phones that are not associated with voters in various databases. The problem with both these polls is that they overestimate the likely voter universe:

Marist/NBC
Total % of Adults % of Reg Voters
1218 100% Adults
1086 89% 100% Registered Voters
692 57% 64% Likely Voters
Washington Post
Total % of Adults % of Reg Voters
1000 100% Adults
887 89% 100% Registered Voters
663 66% 75% Almost Certain

These polls claim to represent of the population of Virginia. From these polls, 89% of adults say they are registered voters, and among registered voters 64% in the Marist poll and 75% in the Washington Post poll were determined to be likely or certain to vote . This both overshoots the percentage of the population of Virginia who are registered and certainly overshoots the percentage who will vote based on recent history:

2009 Virginia Voters
Total % of Adults % of Reg Voters
6,080,805 100% Adults
4,955,755 81% 100% Registered Voters
2,000,819 33% 40% Voted
2005 Virginia Voters
Total % of Adults % of Reg Voters
5,760,835 100% Adults
4,448,852 77% 100% Registered Voters
2,000,052 35% 45% Voted

Whereas roughly 90% of adults in the Post and Marist poll say they are registered, the actual share, based on Census numbers is around 80%. Among registered voters, 40% voted in 2009 (when Republican Bob McDonnell won) and 45% voted in 2005 (when Democrat Tim Kaine won). So, reporting registered voter numbers in this race provides useless information. The vote among likely or certain voters is not much better. If the public polls showed the vote by 2008/2012 only voters and by 2005/2009 voters, we would have a much better idea of who is actually ahead among people who will vote and who needs to do the most work turning out unlikely voters. Unfortunately, the only people who will see this before November work in the campaigns since public polls won’t sample from a voter file.

Washington Post Virginia Poll Already Obsolete

Fortunately, for some reason, media outlets decide to do political polls at roughly the same time. Far be it from me to say they do it so they can have cover or be able to weight the polls so they don’t appear to be an outlier. Who knows. The election is in six months so it is not as if these polls can be verified as to whether they are accurate in early May. On the heels of the Washington Post showing Ken Cuccinelli ahead among registered and “almost certain to vote” Virginians, NBC/Marist is out with a poll in Virginia:

A new NBC News/Marist poll in Virginia finds Ken Cuccinelli (R) leading Terry McAuliffe (D) in the race for governor among likely voters, 45% to 42%.

Among all voters, McAuliffe holds a small lead, 43% to 41%.

Of course, since only about 40% of registered voters will actually vote in November, the McAuliffe non-advantage (I wish reporters would take statistical inference classes and be tortured like I am being right now so that they don’t write unsupportable conclusions) is not worth noting and we have no idea if someone who says they are “likely” to vote are any likelier to vote than someone who says they aren’t. The proper way to report this poll is that it is a dead heat (there is no statistical difference between the candidate either way they report it) and we have no idea whether the individual spoken to in the poll will actually vote since this sample was not called from a voter list. The best way to predict whether someone is a likely voter is if the call can be matched back to a voter file and if the person voted in 2005, 2007, 2009, or 2011, we can be reasonably sure they will vote in 2013. If you don’t do that, you have no idea since a respondent on the phone is NOT reliable in reporting their intent to vote. This type of coverage of polls will persist throughout the summer and fall and irritate me beyond belief.

Anyway, this poll asked which candidate is better described by certain traits. About a third pick McAuliffe, a third pick Cuccinelli, and a third are unsure. The level of knowledge of the candidates is wafer thin, but if by November, voters say Cuccinelli is better described on these measures, we as Democrats and progressives have failed miserably and we deserve to have that lunatic as our Governor.

McAuliffe Cuccinelli Unsure Which Candidate?
30 34 29 Better understands the problems of people like yourself
33 39 24 Trust more to do what’s best for Virginia
31 33 32 Closer to your position on social issues such as abortion
31 30 32 Cares more about the middle class
31 30 32 Shares your values

Moreover, if just 27% of voters believe Ken Cuccinelli is “too conservative”, we’re doomed. We need a new strategy and we need to get it on television. Is anybody out there?

Do you think Ken Cuccinelli is too liberal, too conservative, or about right
6 Too liberal
27 Too conservative
39 About right
29 Unsure

Calm Down – It’s Just a Poll in the Washington Post

I awoke Sunday morning from what I thought were the usual sounds of traffic along the busy street I just moved to, but once I opened the Post, I realized the noise was the gnashing of teeth of Democratic worriers.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has an early lead over businessman Terry McAuliffe in their race for governor, a new Washington Post poll shows, even as most voters in the commonwealth have yet to engage in the nationally watched contest.

Six months before Election Day, Cuccinelli (R) has a slender 46 to 41 percent edge over McAuliffe (D) among all Virginia voters and a significant 51 to 41 percent lead among those who say they’re certain to cast ballots in November.

Days when public polls from legitimate news organizations upend the narrative of the race are the worst in campaigns and in the offices of campaign consultants. Everyone outside the campaign are going to rip you for everything they think the campaign is doing wrong and the chattering class will talk about nothing other than this poll until the next one comes out. And if the next poll is favorable to McAuliffe, people will still talk about this one.

The McAuliffe campaign could commission a Garin-Hart-Yang poll to counter this narrative but that would be a waste of time and money. As awful as these numbers are (assuming the poll is right and that the “certain to cast ballot” people actually have voted in state elections and will this time), they do provide guidance to Democrats and allies committed to defeating Ken Cuccinelli this fall:

1. Don’t Panic. Start Working – The election is six months away. I know there is all that bullshit about how Virginia always goes for the party not in the White House (until they don’t), the perception that Terry has with DC liberal writers, and that Cuccinelli has never lost an election while Terry has never won one. However, Virginia voters are not following this race. Just 10% say they are following the race “very closely.” It’s odd that the Post reports just 8% undecided among “certain voters” and just 15% undecided among registered voters. However, they do say that nearly half of the electorate are either undecided or could change their minds. The overall numbers are not good for Terry, but they are not a slam dunk for Cuccinelli.

2. Terry Needs a Strong Positive Roll Out. The Post poll illustrated a simple fact – despite being a well known figure in DC political circles and green rooms, and having run for Governor once already, Virginia voters don’t know anything about Terry McAuliffe. 70% say they know little to nothing about McAuliffe’s qualifications to be Governor. Terry’s ad is a good first start:

However, at some point before summer, and before the wall-to-wall advertising post Labor Day, voters need to know why to vote FOR Terry and AGAINST Cuccinelli. Terry can’t do both right now, so:

3. Progressives and Democrats Need a New Narrative on Cuccinelli and get it on television ASAP. Let’s face it. We all know why Cuccinelli is awful. We have known it in Fairfax County since he first ran in 2002 and other Virginia activists have learned over time. However, what we have said about Cuccinelli, that he is a pro-life extremist among other things, has not resonated. He won election to a Fairfax County Senate seat three times even though the seat has been occupied by a Democrat since he left. And that Democrat has won in low turnout elections. Obama carried it easily twice. While Cuccinelli won in 2009 basically in McDonnell’s shadow, and did worse in his district than McDonnell and Bolling, he did win. He has faced weak candidates but has never lost despite us attacking him. We need to acknowledge that voters don’t know him statewide (52% know little to nothing about his qualifications) but they do like him (30% favorable – 24% unfavorable from last month’s Quinnipiac poll). Whoever is doing polling now, test a wide variety of attacks. Connect them to the issues that matter most to voters – the economy statewide and transportation in the north. Go after ethics and lack of effectiveness at Attorney General. AND GET THE ATTACKS ON THE AIR!!!! Despite the hype over social media and the fragmentation of communication sources – more than two-thirds of voters nationwide get information about the 2012 election from television. Terry can’t do this on his own. He needs us defining Cuccinelli now. We have two months. Once summer begins, TV watching goes down, and if we wait until Labor Day, our message will get lost in the airwaves. And even though I don’t have the data to prove this, I am convinced voters become more skeptical about claims in political ads the closer we get to an election. While voters don’t really tune in until September, they are influenced by things they hear before Labor Day, especially when the airwaves are not saturated.

Also, I live in Cuccinelli’s district. I have watched him for many years now. He is not Ted Cruz, Todd Aiken, or the typical Republican extremist. He is boring. He uses that to his advantage. When you watch him in debates or on TV you will have no idea how extreme he really is since he does not come off that way. Especially when he really starts to toss the word salad. I would link to debate clips from 2007 or 2009, but I defy anyone to stay awake. This undercuts us and highlights the need for a new approach.

4. Be concerned about Terry’s performance among African-Americans but don’t over interpret it. Having done polls in the south for over 20 years, I am still amazed that a white Democrat underperforming among African-Americans generates stories. Just because Terry is only at 69% does not mean he won’t get 90%+ on Election Day. In June 2011, Tim Kaine had just a 69%-11% lead over George Allen while the President had 85% support against a generic Republican among African-Americans. A year later, Kaine led 71% to 16% while Obama was at 82% against Romney. On Election Day, Kaine won African-Americans by a 92% to 8% margin. People will gloat over these numbers now, but they are not being interpreted correctly.

If you care about defeating Ken Cuccinelli, don’t get discouraged by this poll. It will change over the next six months. But this race won’t be easy no matter how awful Cuccinelli is:

Free Trade Pacts – Bipartisan or Democrats Divided?

On Wednesday, the US Senate passed free trade pacts for Panama, Korea, and Columbia. Some say that this will be a disaster for United States jobs while plenty of others have spent millions promoting these deals in Washington and beyond. DC’s leading trade publication Roll Call described these votes as “bipartisan”. However, in looking at the roll call votes for each, while Democrats did vote for these deals, members of the party were split while Republicans voted for all three of them in near lock step:

Votes Dem GOP
0 13 (25%) 0 (0%)
1 9 (17%) 1 (2%)
2 11 (21%) 1 (2%)
3 20 (38%) 44 (94%)
No Vote 0 (0%) 1 (2%)

94% of Republicans voted for all three deals. Maine’s senators were the only Republicans against with Olympia Snowe voting against the Panama and Columbia deals and Susan Collins voted against just the Columbia deal. Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn did not cast a vote on any of the deals. The Democratic side divided – 75% voted for at least one deal while 62% voted against at least one deal. 20 voted for all three and 13 for none of them with 20 more voting for one or two of the deals. When assessing policies or arguments in a poll, the most effective are ones that unite your side and divide the opposition. Free trade does that for the Republican Party. With the White House in favor of the deals originally negotiated by the Bush Administration, Democrats in the Senate had little hope of stopping them with the Republicans in near unanimous support. The chart below shows how vivid the divide is within the party. So while it is accurate to say that the deals passed with bipartisan support, it is equally valid to say that the Democratic Party split on free trade while universal Republican support ensured passage. Now the future question will be whether anyone will hold supporters of these deals accountable if the United States loses jobs as a result of them. Doubtful, given how that has not occurred in the years after NAFTA and CAFTA failed to deliver on the promises made by their supporters.

Rick Perry – The Sam Horn of American Politics

For months, I have thought that once Rick Perry got in the race for President, he would dominate the GOP field. Unlike Romney, he has been a solid conservative and more importantly, dominated every election for Governor in a southern conservative state. Romney barely beat a weak Democrat in 2002 and that has represented the sum total of electoral success. Perry dominated a challenger who dramatically outspent him in 2002, survived a divided field as a weak incumbent in 2006, and clobbered the establishment choice of Kay Bailout Hutchison in the 2010 GOP primary while going on to dominate another hapless Democrat in the fall.

However, from watching and reading about Rick Perry’s horrendous, stuttering debate performances, it should be obvious that running for president is a completely different ballgame than running for statewide office in a one-party state. George W. Bush had the benefit of running against a popular incumbent in Ann Richards as Texas moved from being a conservative state to a conservative Republican state. Perry has feasted on weak opponents and thus has appeared stronger for it even though he is clearly an average politician.

The closest non-political parallel is to a hitter who dominates the minor leagues but can’t hit major league pitching once he comes up. Since my frame of reference never strays much from late-80s Boston sports, Sam Horn immediately comes to my mind. Besides being the namesake for the popular Red Sox website Son of Sam Horn, he dominated AAA pitching in 1987 – .321 average, 30 homers, 1.037 OPS. Given how Bill Buckner was limping to his career finish that year and the team was horrible, his promotion was one of the few highlights. In his first time around the league, he hit 14 homers and had a .945 OPS, the equivalent of the Perry poll bounce after he got in the race.

I couldn’t have been more excited by Horn taking over first base and anchoring the middle of the order in 1988. He started the year hitting .148 with 2 homers and was sent down. Horn went on to hit .238 with 48 homers over the parts of 7 seasons. While it seems impressive to win three elections for Governor in one of the largest states in the country, it actually exaggerates political talent to those in the DC media and fundraising community. You have to be an exceptional talent like President Obama to overcome the lack of seasoning from not running in competitive elections before jumping into a presidential contest. Obama got into the race early and got his at bats in throughout 2007 so he was ready when the lights came on for real and went on to a run similar to Albert Pujols’s rookie season (.329/37 HRs/130 RBIs). Perry would have benefited from doing the same instead of getting in late. There is nothing in American politics that prepares someone for a presidential race. And if you and your team doesn’t realize that, you flail around like Sam Horn facing a change up.

I should have seen that but this bizarre GOP contest seems to both violate and confirm normal political rules.