Maine’s pernicious polls

There is a direct correlation between a person’s involvement and interest in politics and how much time and effort he spends obsessing over polls. Being hungry for information and obsessed with the horse race, polls are catnip that we simply cannot resist.

Ask any observer of Maine politics what the state of the gubernatorial race is today, and undoubtedly they will repeat some conventional wisdom about the race, which is built in large part on public opinion surveys of Maine voters.

I am as guilty of it as anyone else. Even the most involved campaign operative is only exposed to a tiny fraction of the voting public. There is no way any of us truly knows, from personal experience, what the will of the voter is. If we didn’t have polls to tell us what to think about who is winning or who is losing, it would be very difficult to construct a clear picture from what we hear from people.

That’s because even the broadest political experience is a version of tunnel vision. That is why candidates who are losing big in races can tell you with a straight face, “everywhere I go, I hear from people how much they don’t like my opponent, and how excited they are to vote for me in this race.”

The reality is, all candidates and campaign operatives live in a bubble, and seeing the truth about those outside the bubble is impossible.

Recently, I saw a Democratic field staffer proudly proclaim that he would take the field team assembled by the Michaud campaign over what the Republicans have assembled.

Putting aside the obvious partisan posturing, how would anyone feel comfortable enough saying that? Unless you are simultaneously experiencing both campaigns and their field teams, you can’t really judge who has the better, more effective team.

This election season, specifically, such confidence should be unfounded, as the Republican ground game is as good as it has been in my living memory. But that is neither here nor there.

This works in reverse, of course. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Republican operatives insisted to me that the ground team assembled by the Romney presidential campaign was unlike anything they had ever seen before and was far and away superior to the Obama operation and to what McCain assembled four years prior. It would carry them to victory, they said.

Point being, personal perception is narrow and can’t tell you much of anything about the race. That’s where polls come in. Polls are our only real indication of how things are going.

Those on the left and the right, again including me, obsess over arguing about how accurate or inaccurate they are, quibbling over one point here or one point there based entirely on their own perception of the race and what they think is truly happening out there, coupled with who they want to win.

It never fails. An unexpected big lead for the candidate you like comes out, and the poll is indicative of a major shift in the race. Your opponents are doomed. An unexpected big lead for the candidate you do not like comes out, and the poll is an outlier that isn’t showing you what is really happening in the race.

All of which is wasted time, and effort. As the old adage goes, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, and polls are so frequently inaccurate that they don’t particularly deserve to be obsessed over.

In 2013, for instance, in the Virginia gubernatorial race between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, virtually every public poll available had McAuliffe up by anywhere from seven to 11 points. The polls led to depressed fundraising for Cuccinelli (who wants to invest in an electoral impossibility?) and horrible morale.

All of which turned out to be completely unjustified when on Election Day, McAuliffe won the race by only two points. I wonder what would have happened had there been no polls and people would have just behaved according to their beliefs and interests?

And of course, in the 2010 governor’s race, the two final polls of the race (from PPP and Critical Insights) showed Paul LePage up by 12 and 19 points, respectively, and that race almost went to a recount.

So as you consider who will earn your vote on Tuesday, it is worth unplugging the computer, turning off the television, and just voting for whomever you like the most, without any regard for anything else. Certainly not polls.

The only poll that matters is on Election Day.

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.