Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Summertime, and the polling is easy

Polls released in the past few days provide an early gauge of the upcoming elections in New Jersey. In the U.S. Senate contest, today’s Quinnipiac Poll gives Frank Lautenberg a healthy 9 point lead over Dick Zimmer, whereas Monday’s Rasmussen poll showed the incumbent with an insignificant 1 point advantage. The conventional wisdom says that New Jersey voters tend to flirt with Republican candidates early in the campaign, only to return to “blue state” form by mid-October. However, this is a relatively new development.

As recently as 1992, New Jersey was still in play for presidential elections, and both the 1993 and 1997 gubernatorial elections saw the GOP candidate win in a squeaker. And while New Jersey voters have not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, they came within 3 percentage points of doing so in both 1994 and 2000.

Summer polls make interesting news fodder, but what do they tell us about where a campaign will eventually end up? I took a look back at polls taken in seven different races in New Jersey since 2000. To be fair to individual pollsters, I averaged the Democratic candidates’ margin over/under the Republican candidate in each race for five time periods: June through August, all of September, early October, late October, and the final November polls. [As a side note, the final polls’ average margin was within 2 points of the election day victory margin in five of the seven contests – perhaps a compelling argument for averaging poll results!]

NJ Democratic Candidate Advantage   (poll averages) *

ElectionSummerSeptEarly OctLate OctNovActual
’06 Sen+3-2+4+5+7+9
’05 Gub+10+10+7+8+6+10
’04 Pres+12+3+4+8+5+7
’02 Sen++7-7+2+7+12+10
’01 Gub+17+15+12+14+13+14
’00 Pres+4+12+14+9+10+16
’00 Sen+16+9+14+7+4+3
*   Data for 2006 are from 15 polling organizations and for 2005 are from 11 pollsters. The 2000 to 2004 data are averaged from Quinnipiac and Eagleton polls.
+   Due to a candidate switch in 2002, the summer and September polls test a different Democratic nominee than the later polls. While this election is one of New Jersey’s wonderful little anomalies, it is included in the table for continuity and doesn’t necessarily disrupt any trend.

One question is whether the summer polls are predictive of the final outcome. When it comes to the final vote margin, they are not. The summer polls hit the nail on the head just once (in 2005), and were within 3 percentage points of the actual victory margin in 2001. They were also within 3 points in 2002, although the Democratic candidate was literally a different person in the summer and at the final bell. In 2004 and 2006, the summer polls were off the final margin by 5 to 6 points. And they were off by double digits (12 to 13 points) in both the presidential and senate races of 2000.

Interestingly, the differences between the summer polls and the actual victory margin show no partisan consistency. In two elections – 2000 president and 2006 senate – the Democratic candidate performed better on election day than he did back in the summer. [This was also true for the 2002 senate switcheroo.] However, for three elections – 2000 senate, 2001 governor, and 2004 president – the Democrat did relatively worse in the final vote margin than in the summer polls.

Another question is whether New Jersey Republican candidates show stronger support in summer polls than they do later in the campaign season. This does not seem to be the case either. Only in the 2000 presidential race did summer polling show the narrowest D minus R gap of the campaign season. For three races (2002, 2004, and 2006), the Republicans actually enjoyed their best showing in the September polls. The 2001 election showed the Democratic advantage at its slimmest, albeit nominally so, in the early October polling. Only in the 2000 senate and 2005 governor races did the Republican candidate narrow the gap throughout the final weeks of the campaign, although the movement in 2005 was neither substantive nor predictive of the final outcome.

Indeed, the only point on which all seven races were consistent is that the Democrat was ahead in the summer polls and went on to win each of those elections. Given the very different pictures painted by the two polls released this week, we will need to see a few more polls before we have a good sense of how this race is shaping up. However, there are a number of factors this year that will probably make it even tougher than usual for the GOP to do well in New Jersey. A Republican who stands a chance of winning statewide needs to start off with a broader base of support than the party appears to have now.

For instance, both the February 5th and June 3rd primaries registered higher turnout among Democrats than Republicans. This in itself is not unusual, but in both instances the Democratic turnout was nearly double that of the Republican vote. That is definitely unusual. Also, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll in April indicated that 6-in-10 Republican-leaning voters had no real preference as to who their party’s U.S. Senate nominee should be. This is certainly not evidence of tremendous enthusiasm among the GOP base.

Another major factor this year is that the economy has become the predominant voter concern – an 800 pound gorilla shoving all other issues to the background. A commonly accepted rule of politics is that certain issues naturally benefit one party over the other. Campaigns are designed to raise “their” issue as the primary consideration for voters. Democrats typically have an advantage when economic concerns dominate the debate. The GOP will need to move their issues – such as national security or taxes – to the top of voters’ minds if they want to grab the advantage here in New Jersey.

Couple all this with the fact that New Jersey voters rarely tune into statewide races until a couple of weeks before the election, and you have a hefty grain of salt with which to read these early poll results. Pollsters, Monmouth/Gannett included, will continue to track these races through the summer and fall. My advice is to look for the numbers behind the “horse race” to get a better understanding of both the mood of the electorate and the dynamics that will drive this year’s election. What are the top issues on voters minds? Are voters tuning in early this year? Are there partisan differences in enthusiasm for the campaign? In the early polls, this information will be more useful, and indeed more interesting, than the horse race numbers in giving us a picture of the electorate, both here in New Jersey and throughout the country.

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