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The perils of partisan polling

Partial poll numbers don’t always tell full story, experts say

By Nikita Biryukov, July 13 2018 2:20 pm

With the November’s elections still a ways away and with non-partisan pollsters mostly waiting for the competition to kick into full gear, some campaigns are relying on polls done by firms with less-academic motives.

On Thursday, Andy Kim’s campaign blasted out top-line results of a poll conducted by the Global Strategy Group, a reputable private pollster that makes its rounds in Democratic circles, that found the former Obama White House aide locked in a tight race with Rep. Tom MacArthur, but it’s not clear whether those results can be taken at face value.

The poll, which was commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund to test environmental messaging in the race, found Kim tied with MacArthur, with 42% of the 400 respondents supporting either candidate. But, the top-line results did not include a questionnaire, and because of that, it’s not clear exactly how reliable those results are.

“Question order, wording, formatting – all of that is crucial in a survey where, depending on how the questions are asked and where in the survey questions are asked and what comes before and after them, all have an effect on respondents’ attitudes and views and preferences,” Ashley Koning, director of Rutgers’ Eagleton Poll, said, speaking about polling generally. “So, your results are really only as good as the questions that were asked and how the questions were asked.”

Many non-partisan pollsters have signed on to the transparency initiative run by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, which, among other things, requires pollsters release entire questionnaires and population definitions.

Participation in the initiative is more common among academic polls than it is among firms conducting private polling.

The Global Strategy Group poll did not make clear how it identified likely voters.

Andrew Bauman, senior vice president of research of the Global Strategy Group, declined to release a full questionnaire when asked to do so on Thursday, saying that the poll was intended for private use and not intended for a full public release.

That didn’t stop the release of a results memo that contained compelling numbers for the Kim campaign, but it should encourage some caution among readers, despite the Global Strategy Group’s reliable reputation, said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s polling institute.

“The problem with most polls, when there is a problem, is in the question wording.  Thus, any poll that doesn’t release the full question set is unreportable in my book,” Murray said. “My guess is the Kim campaign is antsy because there haven’t been any independent polls yet – they’re considered 2nd tier in the hunt for national resources and want to move up as a priority.”

That may very well be the case.

While Kim’s campaign has managed to fundraise on a level competitive with MacArthur and other Democratic candidates in the state, like former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, who  ended June with $1.7 million in his war chest, national support for Kim has fallen short of that earned by candidates likeof Mikie Sherrill, whose race appears to have earned the most focus from the national party.

So, showing that his race is in a dead heat could earn the attention of deep-pocketed donors and a party establishment loaded with decisions about how to split its funds among hundreds of congressional races, even if voters haven’t really started to pay attention to this year’s mid-term elections.

“For any campaign right now, it’s about the dollars and it’s about the headline,” Koning said. “If they can get a good headline this early in the campaign season that shows them doing well or shows that there’s a chink in the armor of a particular opponent, that looks good for them, for potential fundraising, and for the news cycle.”


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