Pernicious polling

Some unsolicited advice for all political junkies, reporters and candidates: ignore polls in June.

This week, a new – and very flawed – poll from MassINC showed a few stunning, some would say head-scratching, results. Former governor Angus King held a nearly 30-point lead over his closest competition, Republican Charlie Summers. In addition, supporters of same-sex marriage were leading opponents by almost twenty points. Also of interest: President Barack Obama led Mitt Romney by 14 points.

Setting aside the nonsensical results that came from this poll – don’t worry, we’ll get back to that – the most important thing to remember here is that polls for November elections in June are utter nonsense.

To begin with, both political parties have nominees that have yet to be introduced to the statewide electorate yet, and they are both facing a man who has won two statewide elections and is a national political figure.

Television commercials have not been run. Neither have radio ads, online ads or print ads. Debates have not happened. There have been no gaffes or stumbles, no zingers or triumphs. None of the campaign has actually happened yet.

In each case, the race will tighten and reorients itself more than once, so polling now is useless.

The other problem, of course, is that there isn’t much polling conducted in Maine, so the state is uniquely susceptible to outlier polls. Polls that are fundamentally flawed – as I believe this one is – and also happen to be the only ones done in weeks, become impossible to compare against other polls for accuracy.

In this case, the MassINC poll is tragically out of step with reality and should be immediately discounted.

To start with, it has a low sample size: only 506 Maine voters were surveyed. Now, that is a small sample for a statewide race, but it doesn’t automatically mean the results are bad. Plenty of good polls have had smaller samples.

It does, however, make it less reliable than a poll of say over 1,000 voters. If mistakes were made in this poll, the smaller numbers mean that those mistakes are amplified.

What really betrays this poll’s flaws, though, isn’t the sample size, or distribution of party registrants. It is the results.

Cynthia Dill, the Democratic nominee, is sitting at 9 percent in this poll. Now, I have no love for Ms. Dill, and I have repeatedly said she will come in third place, but the idea that one of the major party candidates is sitting in single digits is hard to imagine. Summers is slightly more realistic at 23 percent, but I have a hard time believing King is up by 30 points.

The same-sex marriage question is equally puzzling. There has always been something of a Bradley effect in surveys on this subject, but a twenty point lead? That’s hard to believe. The odd result is probably explained by the wording of the question, which is awfully friendly to the “yes” position. If the question asked more closely resembled the actual ballot language, the numbers might be more realistic.

Another confusing result was that 22 percent of respondents said they had not heard of the health care reform law. Almost a quarter of Mainers haven’t heard of Obamacare? Really?

And then there are the approval ratings. U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have an 82 percent, and 80 percent approval rating, respectively, in this poll. Make no mistake, both are popular, but the idea that either one of them are that popular is nonsense.

Clearly, something is wrong with this poll. Obama is probably leading Romney in Maine, but by high single digits, not 14 points. Snowe and Collins are popular, but all other recent polls show them closer to 60 percent approval, not 80 percent. King is probably leading, but not by 30 points. Cynthia Dill may be weak, but even Libby Mitchell scraped together 19 percent of the vote. Same-sex marriage may have a very slight edge, but there is no way it has a 20 percent lead.

From top to bottom, all these results defy common sense. The good news for Democrats, the good news for Republicans, the good news for King – none of it fits into where we have all observed public opinion actually being recently.

Polls are worthless in June, but this poll in particular is especially worthless. All people on all sides of the political spectrum should do themselves a favor and simply ignore them until we get closer to the election. We’ll all be happier that way.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.